Well-being and Burnout for Medical Students

Burnout and academic stress are more prevalent now than ever. 

Contrary to belief, academic burnout is more than just feeling tired of studying. Academic burnout is prolonged stress, physical and mental exhaustion, and the loss of motivation to study. Burnout also happens when students feel an overwhelming need to excel or pass their classes, pass complex exams, and learn Latin, with little to no time to recharge, causing physical and mental stress.

There’s not a one-shoe-fits-all reason for academic burnout. Each student has unique motivations and limits when it comes to academic stress and exhaustion.

A piece published in the National Library of Medicine emphasizes the prevalence of burnout among medical students, including excessive workload, lack of work-life balance, relationships, financial burden, and lack of career guidance and pressure on performance assessment.

Ways to improve well-being and avoid burnout 

While burnout is common, especially among medical students, it’s not impossible to avoid it. Improving your overall well-being through exercise, diet, mental training, social life, and a positive outlook can help prevent burnout.

Pace yourself

Good well-being starts with wanting to improve your life, and pacing yourself is the first step. Pacing yourself means being at a constant and comfortable speed to keep going without becoming too tired.

In order to avoid burnout, acknowledge how hard you are or have been to yourself and how this pressure is taking a toll on your body and mind.

When experiencing academic stress, pacing yourself means keeping your workload organized and distributed at a manageable speed—not going too slow or too fast—allowing you to continue working day by day without getting too exhausted or too tired.

Organization is key

A key factor to pacing yourself is keeping your lifestyle organized—from your environment, workload, schedules, and activities. 

As medical students, having a lot on your plate is normal—assessments, training, internships, exams, research, and practical tests. Organizing your lifestyle gives you a clear overview of what to prioritize, keeping track of work that you can cross off your plate quickly, or those activities that need immediate attention. To do this, you can:

  1. Keep a planner handy—and use it! List all your deadlines and sort them by dues date, scheduling the urgent ones early in the week.
  2. Get a desk calendar. While a planner does the same thing, seeing your schedules at any time conveniently can motivate you to work so you can keep your schedule on track.
  3. Keep your room or your workspace clean and tidy. According to Harvard Business Review, our physical environment affects our cognition, emotion, stress, and anxiety levels.

Stay engaged in extra-curricular activities

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is not just a proverb but a fact of life. Simply put, continuously ramming your life and schedules 24/7 with studying will make your life dull and negatively impact your physical and mental well-being. 

Extracurricular activities will help your CV content and improve your leadership and social skills. It helps broaden your horizons and network among people outside your circle, allowing for broader experiences.

Try joining a club, participating in an event, or joining school organizations for a change.

Get enough sleep 

Making time for proper rest is as important as studying, especially for medical students who do internships with night shift schedules. 

Getting enough sleep refers not only to the time you spend sleeping but also to the quality and schedule of your sleep. When you sleep beyond your usual sleep schedule, you may be just as tired as if you haven’t slept.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how much sleep you need daily, as these vary from person to person. What you must make sure, however, is that you get good quality sleep to avoid burnout and exhaustion by:

  1. Avoiding electronics at least 2 hours before sleep
  2. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable
  3. Avoid caffeine late in the day
  4. Fix your sleep schedules
  5. Take a warm bath and warm drink
  6. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow

Make time for things that make you happy

Why not try to make time for a half day a week for hobbies that you genuinely enjoy—like making pottery, sewing, or even just doing puzzles or lying in bed and watching your favorite shows?

Sleep is not the only form of recovery our body needs. Our mind needs a productivity detox, too, and engaging in enjoyable activities at least once a week positively impacts how you work by having something good to look forward to. 

Eat good and healthy food (and on time!)

This need not be said, but we’ll say it anyway. Proper diet and nutrition are detrimental to human health.

Students busy with academics tend to ignore eating correctly (and this does not only refer to skipping meals, by the way). Eating beyond your meal hours and grabbing for instant food instead of a proper, well-balanced meal messes up your body more than you think it does.

A study published in the National Library of Medicine showed that participants with more frequent healthy food items reported lower burnout scores than those who consumed less healthy food.

Consider skipping processed and instant food for a meal, and reach for fruits, nuts, protein, vegetables, and a good amount of fats. Also, make sure your meal is densely packed with the right balance of nutrition.

Burnout is real, and it’s affecting everybody

Suppose you are experiencing the first signs of burnout as a medical student. In that case, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge that it can exist and that it’s happening because burnout is real and can affect anybody regardless of how strong you think your mind is.

The only way to recover from burnout is to make sure that you prioritize your overall health and well-being instead of your thesis deadlines or practical tests. Organizing your work and thoughts, eating healthy, pacing yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation are essential ways to avoid or recover from burnout so you can hold your ground in the long run.

Author: Nancy Mitchell