‘I feel guilty taking a break’: Academic burnout a silent attack

A woman sitting on a sofa with a Macbook. (PHOTO: Steinar Engeland via Unsplash)

Is the pressure external or innate? Felicity Oh ponders aloud.

A woman sitting on a sofa with a Macbook. (PHOTO: Steinar Engeland via Unsplash)

As the academic year comes to an end at the polytechnic, I have learnt some valuable lessons.

While it is great as students to value productivity and perfection, it is also good to be mindful of not taking on more than we can chew.

Often, I used to feel guilty whenever I took a break as it felt like I was not being productive and wasting time. I also felt that if I did not push myself more, I would be one step further from the university of my choice.

Then fatigue set in and motivation started to weaken, and one day I found myself lying in bed burnt out. That’s when I kicked myself for not being kind to myself and taking breaks.

What happened next? My workload piled up, and the quality of my work suffered. Then it is a vicious cycle as I have to buck up and get up to speed on work. Which means no more breaks at all!

Being burnt out and out of sorts to me was very painful. As a student, every single time I took a break, I ended up feeling guilty as I felt I should be doing something while my grades were slipping.

However, on more than one occasion, I turned on my laptop and my mind went blank and I ended up staring at the screen for hours, too tired to even think.


As a polytechnic student, I have always heard people say polytechnic is so stress-free, you barely have to do anything. But it is not true, especially if your end goal is to enter a certain course in a certain university.

We have to go above and beyond the curriculum if we actually want to make something good out of our time at the poly. This is not helped by our peers in junior colleges who are a year ahead of us and already in university.

From what I have heard from my peers, lecturers and relatives, for a polytechnic student to have a shot at entering a university, here is what we have to do:

  • Make sure our GPA is higher than the average taxi flag-down fare or a plate of chicken rice (around 3.50, as of writing);
  • Need a sterling portfolio that would dazzle any university admission officer. This means a long list of quality projects and awards as far as the eye can see;
  • Be familiar with the different admissions;
  • Be raring to go for any interview that may come our way.

A tall order, isn’t it?

For me, the pressure to go to university is something innate and immense, but whether the pressure is from me or from external sources, I am not even sure anymore.

The lines are blurred. The only thing I can do at this point is check the boxes on the list and keep going. Keep in mind that we have to handle all of this on top of school work and maintaining personal relationships.

Being burnt out and out of sorts to me was very painful. As a student, very single time I took a break, I ended up feeling guilty as I felt I should be doing something while my grades were slipping.

Admittedly in the past, grades were everything. Today, we need portfolios and transcripts as we are expected to be ‘well-rounded individuals’. This means signing up for virtually any activity that gives us a head start against others in the same race.

The pressure of portfolio-building can result in us swamped in activities and become overwhelmed. When this happens, we forget why we are doing the activity sometimes. We lose a sense of purpose and focus.

Sometimes this also affects our grades and there goes my checklist — GPA and portfolio!


I remember during the last term break, I was working on school-related activities virtually every day, and never got a chance to fully re-charge myself.

I started the new semester with about 50 per cent capacity and I saw its impact on my daily grades.

It devastated me, made me feel less motivated, and I needed a lot of mental strength to get back on top of my studies again.

I feel, as students with all the pressures, we often forget to rest. We all need to rest and we all need our sleep.

However, genuine rest and relaxation is something that many are struggling for.

I am trying to take my breaks but cannot say I have mastered it. I like to look at it as a work-in-progress.

But one thing I know for sure is my academic term break is around the corner and this time I am certainly going to take a time-out.

This commentary was first published in AsiaOne as part of a collaboration between the digital news website and Republic Polytechnic’s School of Management & Communication.