Social changes during the COVID-19 pandemic could have exacerbated student burnout

In a recent study published in the journal Children, a team of researchers conducted a cross-sectional predictive analysis of first-year psychology students to evaluate the incidence of burnout syndrome among adolescent university students and examine the differences in burnout levels according to personalities and anxiety due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Study: Prevalence of Burnout Syndrome and Fear of COVID-19 among Adolescent University Students. Image Credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock
Study: Prevalence of Burnout Syndrome and Fear of COVID-19 among Adolescent University Students. Image Credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock

Background

Burnout syndrome, which was initially only associated with healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses, is now being recognized as an issue among other workers in their professional environments, as well as students. Parallels between workers and students regarding meeting demands and fulfilling tasks by utilizing available resources have been used to equate schools and universities with workplaces. In this context, school burnout syndrome is identified as a psychological problem that is a result of continuous stress in the educational environment due to a low sense of personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization.

Burnout can have serious consequences on the psychological and physical health of the student with psychosomatic, behavioral, and emotional complications, including fatigue, cardiovascular problems, insomnia, depression, substance abuse, poor academic performance, problems with diet, and dropouts. Studies have reported burnout rates as high as 17–53% among university students. Furthermore, the disease mitigation measures, such as lockdowns enforced worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, have caused major disruptions in most educational programs. Therefore, it is important to understand the burnout rates among students in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the study

In the present study, the researchers designed a cross-sectional predictive study involving 134 adolescent undergraduate students pursuing a psychology degree at various universities in Spain. All the students were of 18 years of age and 84% were females. A sociodemographic questionnaire was used to collect data after obtaining informed consent. The questionnaire was administered during academic hours in the classrooms with the consent of the teaching faculty.

The collected data included demographic information such as sex and age and information on whether they or someone they knew had experienced COVID-19, someone they knew had died from the disease, and whether they had experienced the physical or psychological stress associated with the pandemic-associated social changes.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory—Student Survey (MBI-SS), which uses a seven-point response scale to measure 15 items related to low personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization, was used to assess burnout levels. The NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI), which evaluated agreeableness, consciousness, extroversion,  and neuroticism, and the Fear of COVID-19 Scale (FCV-19S) was also used in the evaluation of burnout.

Results

The results indicated that 9–21% of the students were at risk of experiencing burnout. However, the burnout levels did not appear to increase due to fear during the COVID-19 pandemic or due to COVID-19-related cases or deaths among family and friends. The authors believe that school burnout is associated largely with academic performance and, unlike other psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, is not greatly influenced by circumstances such as COVID-19 cases among the student’s relatives and friends.

Furthermore, the researchers noted that no significant increase in fear levels due to COVID-19 was observed in students who had relatives or friends who had suffered from or died due to the disease. Based on the fact that most of the COVID-19-related deaths occurred among the older age group, the study concluded that adolescents differed in their fear of COVID-19 from adults.

The students who reported anxiety and psychological problems caused by the drastic social changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic indicated increased emotional exhaustion, decrease in levels of personal achievement, neuroticism, and fear of COVID-19 as compared to those who did not report any psychological effects. Physical consequences in students during the pandemic were also associated with fear of the virus and neuroticism, indicating that the students’ fear of COVID-19 was associated more with the psychological and physical changes associated with the alteration in the social situation during the pandemic and not with them or someone close to them having had COVID-19.

Interestingly, an increase in fear of COVID-19 was positively associated with consciousness and neuroticism and negatively proportional to agreeableness. Furthermore, students with neuroticism were seen to be less extroverted and more likely to experience burnout.

Conclusions

Overall, the results indicated that the fear of the students themselves or someone close to them contracting COVID-19 did not contribute to any of the examined dimensions of student burnout. However, many of the students reported psychological and physical effects, including emotional exhaustion, neuroticism, and low levels of personal achievement due to the social changes brought about by the pandemic.

Journal reference:
Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Written by

Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Chinta Sidharthan is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Her academic background is in evolutionary biology and genetics, and she has extensive experience in scientific research, teaching, science writing, and herpetology. Chinta holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the Indian Institute of Science and is passionate about science education, writing, animals, wildlife, and conservation. For her doctoral research, she explored the origins and diversification of blindsnakes in India, as a part of which she did extensive fieldwork in the jungles of southern India. She has received the Canadian Governor General’s bronze medal and Bangalore University gold medal for academic excellence and published her research in high-impact journals.

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