Harnessing the power of skills: averting and addressing burnout in Europe’s youth
September 28, 2023

Harnessing the power of skills: averting and addressing burnout in Europe’s youth

Author: Robin C. Bucur-Portase

In celebration of 2023 as the European Year of Skills, it is necessary to shine a light on an often-overlooked aspect of young people’s development: burnout. The Year of Skills isn’t just about helping young people acquire a wide range of competencies, but also fostering their  mental well-being and resilience in a world which grows increasingly demanding of our time and energy.  Young people face many challenges in trying to balance educational aspirations, career opportunities, and personal growth, all of which can induce stress and potentially culminate in burnout – a state characterised by exhausting physical, emotional, and mental fatigue brought on by relentless stress.

Why burnout matters: an imperative for prevention and intervention

The problem of burnout in young people is critical, as it can have dire repercussions if left unaddressed. The condition can escalate by manifesting into severe physical and psychological consequences, such as depression, anxiety, hypersomnia or insomnia, decreased or increased appetite (contributing to obesity and/or type two diabetes), heart disease, and others. It can also jeopardise an individual’s learning and performance, which undermines the core objectives of the European Year of Skills. 

Despite the immense presence of burnout, which is best exemplified by reports that higher education institutions see up to 75% of their students experiencing burnout, it isn’t mentioned in the DSM-V (the psychological industry’s standard manual regarding psychological and mental disorders).

The lack of attention on burnout, as well as its widespread nature and severe consequences makes raising awareness about burnout an urgent matter. We, as young people, need to understand how to protect ourselves and others. Everyone should learn how to recognise the signs of oncoming burnout and how to act when faced with this difficult situation. Realising the urgency to mitigate this challenge is a key step towards nurturing a balanced, vibrant society while securing the comprehensive health of our younger population.

Strategies for averting and managing burnout

The best countermeasure for burnout (as with all medical conditions) is prevention. This refers to the adoption of methods that reduce stress and promote a healthy lifestyle. Several initiatives can be taken in line with the European Year of Skills.

Knowledge and Awareness: Educating young people about burnout, its triggers, signs, and implications is a fundamental prerequisite. Awareness can be achieved through seminars, online forums, and inclusion in school syllabi to enable prompt identification and response. Awareness of one’s individual condition (and not just of the facts of burnout) is also important in enabling self-reflection. There are many types of burnout so knowing what we need to prevent or manage this condition boils down to our understanding of ourselves.

Nurturing Key Life Skills: The main EU themes of this year concern building skills like time management, stress handling, emotional comprehension, and resilience. Mastering these skills enables young individuals to manage their tasks and hurdles effectively, thereby diminishing the risk of burnout.

Harmony between Learning and Relaxation: It is vital to help young people realise their need to balance their skill acquisition with adequate relaxation. Sufficient sleep, hobbies, and intervals amidst intense work or study periods support physical and emotional wellness. For example, students could be given a day or afternoon off every week from their university studies to encourage them to pursue their hobbies and extracurricular activities, which for example is often common practice at many UK universities. Another impactful change would be creating designated areas within the university grounds to allow people to take a break or even sleep in between learning activities.

Support for Mental Health: Offering readily accessible mental health resources, like counselling or therapeutic sessions, can aid young individuals in better handling stress. Institutions and organisations should prioritise this type of support and also work to de-stigmatise access to these resources. This can be most effectively done through lecturers and teaching assistants who form the closest support system for students. Campaigns and free consultations may also be effective in making this a reality.

Promoting Healthy Lifestyle Practices: Regular exercise, a wholesome diet, and mindfulness routines contribute to stress resilience, thereby diminishing the probability of burnout.

For those already experiencing burnout, professional assistance, often via psychotherapy or counselling, can be helpful. Techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be instrumental in helping reinterpret detrimental thought patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms. However, burnout can sometimes be more emotional in its substance, despite healthy thought patterns. In these instances, autogenic training (colloquially known as spending time with loved ones) is more effective.

Moreover, social support is essential in mitigating the effects of burnout. It also contributes to its prevention both through loved ones’ support and love, but through their keen attention to our mental state as well.

Erasmus+ BenDiT-EU: a European solution aimed at student burnout

BenDiT-EU or Burnout Education, Normatives and Digital Tools for European Universities is a strategic collaboration aimed at tackling the issue of burnout in students across the EU. It is coordinated by Associate Professor Ovidiu Popa-Velea ([email protected]) at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy “Carol Davila” in Bucharest, Romania.

This initiative offers the possibility to assess whether one has developed or is on the way towards burnout, as well as offering a comprehensive guide on how to effectively prevent and manage this condition. Anyone can make an account to complete the burnout quiz here and access the online manual here.

This project has been developed so that the widespread and intricate nature of burnout is tackled from multiple sides. As such, the team behind this project came up with an impactful plan targeting three levels: organisational, collective, and individual.

At the individual level, students are targeted directly. To achieve this, the burnout quiz and manual above have been developed and launched online. To help those that may not want to take the quiz, the sections on “Frequent Questions”, “Community Resources,” and “Distress Self-Help” can be accessed by anyone without the need for an  account. Various videos and resources are also provided on the online platform.

Addressing the issue collectively involves the networks and support systems surrounding the students, such as their lecturers or university assistants. To achieve this, multiple “train-the-trainer” sessions are delivered in several  EU countries, and a curriculum is shared with them.  

Finally, tackling burnout from an organisational perspective involves promoting these resources and other burnout prevention strategies through university policies with the support of leading individuals at different higher educational institutions. These policy modifications remain in progress as they are personalised to each institution in accordance with their goals, objectives, and culture.

To further its outreach, the project has been translated into six  different European languages: English, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Bulgarian.

Towards a healthier, more resilient society

In light of the European Year of Skills, it is essential to acknowledge that skills transcend academic and professional capabilities by encapsulating life skills that empower young people to lead wholesome and  well-rounded lives. By emphasising the prevention and treatment of burnout, we can ensure that young people, and people of all ages, are not just well-equipped with skills for success but also fortified with the resilience to confront life’s hurdles. Introducing mental health strategies and stress management skills into our educational and professional structures is a formidable stride towards a healthier, more resilient society.

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