Why Do Boys and Girls Burn Out?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 09, 2012 3 min read
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Exhaustion, stress, disengagement, cynicism, inadequacy: Not feelings that anyone seeks out, or that any educator wants to foster. But 16-year-olds in Nordic countries have been reporting these symptoms of burnout more and more over the past decade. Why?

Researchers Katariina Salmelo-Aro and Lotta Tynkkynen, of the University of Helsinki’s Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and the University of Jyväskylä, respectively, looked into the role of school transitions and educational tracks in fostering burnout, paying particular attention to differences in the experiences of boys and girls, for “Gendered Pathways in School Burnout Among Adolescents,” published in the Journal of Adolescence.

Students in many European school systems hit a pivotal moment when they choose between or are placed in a vocational or academic track at some point in their adolescence. The researchers hypothesize that the increased demands and competition of academic track could lead to feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion and thus to more burnout than the vocational track.

The researchers surveyed 687 students (327 girls, 360 boys) from a medium-sized town in Finland. The students answered questions about burnout twice during their ninth grade year—the last year of comprehensive schooling—and twice the year after, during the first year of their transition to secondary schooling. Twenty-one students dropped out of school in the interim, and their results were not included. Burnout was measured using a School Burnout Inventory developed by researcher Salmela-Aro and others, which measured exhaustion, disengagement and cynicism, and feelings of inadequacy.

The study finds that that burnout decreased slightly between ninth grade and the first year of secondary school for students on the vocational track. Both boys and girls on the academic track, however, saw a significant increase in burnout. Girls on the academic track were most likely to experience burnout, but boys on the academic track were likely to see a bigger increase in burnout. Girls scored higher on exhaustion than boys; boys, especially those on the academic track, were more likely to be cynical. The researchers plot the changes in students’ responses on a series of graphs that you can view in the Journal of Adolescence article.

Why the differences between the genders? The researchers suggest that “girls may turn stress inward and feel inadequacy on the academic track, while boys may direct it outward toward school and other institutions and feel cynicism.” They also suggest that girls, who generally do better in school but are, they write, more averse to competition, might be more likely to experience feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion, whereas boys, who may feel their interests aren’t addressed in the academic classroom, may be more likely to experience cynicism.

The researchers are careful to highlight the fact that adolescents undergo many changes at this time in their life in addition to the transition to secondary school, and that many of these factors might influence burnout. They also follow this cohort for only one year, which means that there may be a natural variation in burnout over time that would show up in a longer-term study.

There’s a lot to unpack and to continue to explore here. I wondered if the academic track is inherently more conducive to burnout, or if there are schools that are both academically rigorous and less burnout-inducing. I also wondered if the academic track had longer-term benefits that overrode the negative mental health impacts on teenagers, and what exactly the dropout rates were from each track. Would the researchers argue in favor of more students pursuing vocational education?

The researchers do suggest that educators should intervene and work with students who are showing symptoms of burnout in order to reduce depression, dropping out, and the marginalization that often follows that decision, but they don’t say what, exactly, should be done. As schools continue to search for ways to improve their graduation rates, figuring out how to reduce school burnout seems like an important puzzle piece.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.