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Preventing Burnout in Student Leaders…and Yourself

Preventing burnout is a serious concern. The number one issue I hear students complaining about on the college campus is burnout. In fact, 94% of university students say the word they use most to describe their life is: overwhelmed. Almost half of them are so overwhelmed “it is almost difficult to function.” And nearly one in ten have considered suicide in the last year.

For student leaders—it’s even worse. Students who are R.A.s, campus club leaders, student government officers, Greek leaders and the like suffer from burnout even more than the average student. Because of the high demands of their jobs and because so many must maintain a minimum GPA just to keep their jobs, they can stress out over the multi-tasking. They are students, administrators, role models, teachers and counselors.


photo credit: Magnus. via photo pin cc

According to a report by Derrick Paaladino (University of North Texas), Thomas Murray (University of Florida), Rebecca Newgent and Lyle Gohn (University of Arkansas), student leaders experience burnout for three big reasons:

  1. Personal issues – They are struggling with their own baggage.
  2. Work environment – They are in an unhealthy culture or residence hall.
  3. Training – They have not been equipped and prepared well enough.

May I say the obvious? You and I can do something about two of the three reasons for student burnout above. Personal issues are the wild card. We cannot eliminate the struggles that students experience. The best we can do is to recruit and interview well, to reduce the probability of these setbacks.

We must focus on creating a healthy culture for them to work within. Deluga and Winters (1990) found a positive relationship between role ambiguity and increased levels of stress. In addition, stress rises when staff experience conflict or excess criticism. These are work environment issues that we must diminish by creating a culture that is encouraging, positive and helpful.

Then there’s the need for training. Our surveys at Growing Leaders show that 88% of the schools we work with provide training at the beginning of the fall semester. Yet, only 17% furnish ongoing equipping throughout the year. It’s as if we say in August: “Here are some pointers on how to lead…now good luck. See you in May.”

One key we hold in our hands to reduce burnout is to provide fresh, ongoing tools for students to stay passionate about our mission and equipped to do their job. After the “event” in August, they need a “process” every week, each month to stay aligned. It’s like eating meals. No human being eats one big meal in January hoping it will keep them nourished through the year. That’s ridiculous. We eat everyday, more than once to stay healthy. The same is true with leader development.

This is why we created Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. This four-book series provides an image, a conversation and an experience for students to interact with, one a week, for a semester. Each image represents a timeless leadership principle that equips students to lead in a healthy way.

Whatever tool you use—may I encourage you to provide ongoing equipping to your leaders…and for yourself.

Tell me, what do you do to offer ongoing nourishment for you and your students to prevent burnout?


  1. University of Oklahoma BSU on September 16, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this Dr. Elmore! Our leaders are feeling it right about now.
    We host a monthly event for student leaders called Refresh. We feed them, give them some time to be together and catch up with one another. Then we bring in some of the most experienced and dynamic leaders we can find to give them courage to persevere, people with white hair and real war stories who can praise them and connect them to our great heritage of disciple-makers. They need to hear that feeling tired is normal and that it get’s better as you persevere. Giving them perspective is refreshing!

    • Tim Elmore on September 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you do a great job providing opportunities for peer bonding and learning from the previous generations.

  2. Cameron Underdown on September 22, 2012 at 7:48 am

    We have twelve total trainings in the month of September for our student ministry leaders.we ask them to make four.we also bookend trainings with hang out barbecues, and we just opened a kindle account that we gave every leader rich or poor young or old access to our favorite authors on leading and disabling youth.all young leaders meet with a staff mentor weekly as well to track personal stuff. Its a lot of work, but rewarding and worth it.

    • Tim Elmore on September 24, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks for sharing the ways you are pouring into your student leaders. I hope this semester is a fruitful one!

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Preventing Burnout in Student Leaders…and Yourself