University students’ wellbeing continues to decline

The level of study engagement and burnout of University of Helsinki students was surveyed in the coronavirus spring and later in the year. As many as 60% of the respondents feel they are either burnt out or at risk of burning out.

Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro has investigated the study engagement and burnout of students of the University of Helsinki both in the coronavirus spring and later in 2020. The student surveys are part of an ongoing international study on the effects of remote instruction.

“The results have declined to a worrying degree in the autumn.”

In the spring, 28% of all respondents felt engaged in their studies, but that figure had dropped to a mere 17% in the beginning of December. In earlier surveys measuring burnout and study engagement conducted between 2008 and 2016, nearly half, or 44%, of university students felt engaged. The previous surveys were conducted at four-year intervals in 2008, 2012 and 2016 among all higher education students in Finland.

“Consequently, the datasets are not directly comparable, but the latest survey does show the effects of remote teaching and learning.”

A new survey targeted at the students of the University of Helsinki garnered responses from 1,573 students in November and December 2020. A great majority of the respondents were women (80%), which may partially explain the high burnout figures. The average age of respondents was 26, and most were first- (28%) or second-year (22%) students.

According to the survey conducted among University of Helsinki students, analysed by Salmela-Aro and Postdoctoral Researcher Lauri Hietajärvi, strong study-related burnout was experienced by 18% of the respondents in the spring, while the corresponding figure for the autumn was 26%. In the surveys encompassing all higher education students in Finland conducted in 2008–2016, only 7–10% of respondents felt severely burnt out.

Previously, burnout has increased and study engagement decreased as studies have progressed, but now burnout was particularly common among first-year students. At the moment, more senior students experienced burnout less often than their more junior counterparts.

Risk of burnout and burnout worryingly prevalent

The share of students at risk of study burnout was 24% in the spring and 33% in the autumn, with the figure in the previous surveys at 19%.

Based on preliminary findings, as many as 60% of the respondents to the University of Helsinki survey were either completely burnt out or at risk of burning out.

“This is a huge number that we have to take seriously. We have never before seen figures like this in connection with university students.”

Burnout involves three central factors: exhaustion, a cynical and negative attitude towards studying, and a feeling of inadequacy as a student. 

The results show how strong feelings of inadequacy students are currently having. In fact, Salmela-Aro has proposed that routine performance should be considered top performance for the time being. She says study burnout is a significant risk factor for developing depression.

“Loneliness also increases burnout, while inclusivity protects from it. The transition to remote teaching during the pandemic has increased loneliness.”

Basic psychological needs not met in remote learning

The basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, belongingness and meaningfulness have not been met in remote learning, which increases burnout. Put together, these factors account for as much as 46% of the burnout reported. Ensuring the fulfilment of basic psychological needs in this time of remote contact is important.

Burnout and engagement are contagious. According to Salmela-Aro, socio-emotional skills, such as curiosity, grit, resilience and social skills protect from burnout, while an imbalance between demands and resources results in burnout. Demands, such as daily schedules, technical challenges, other concerns, the lack of workspace and disturbances are stressful for students, while remote learning skills, teachers’ remote instruction skills, support provided by teachers, their regular communication and other resources serve to shield students from burnout and increase their engagement. Similarly, having a job and caring for children were protective factors.

Salmela-Aro calls for resources and support for students. Since the University’s teachers, researchers and other staff are faced with the same uncertainty, there is a demand for inclusivity and experiences of success without having to perform. Students need help: peer support, friends and a sense of community, understanding from teachers, flexibility and clarity in assignments as well as guidance in their studies and support services from the University.

Further information:
Katariina Salmela-Aro, professor, phone: +358 50 415 5283, email: