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What is Burnout and How Can Teachers and School Leaders Overcome It?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 4th January 2021

Back in September 2020 in my article Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?  I shared my own experiences of an occupational burnout diagnosed the year before. I also shared my concerns about the potential for an epidemic of school leader burnout in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic. Four months on, my concerns have not abated as the crisis continues to develop and the situation in schools globally goes from bad to worse. Over the break I have been in contact with many school leaders and teachers from around the world who are concerned about the return to school, including a friend who has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue, involving a 12+ month recovery period. With the onset of a third or fourth wave of the pandemic, schools in many countries are forced to return to online learning or blended learning models, while others are managing the anxiety of returning to on-site instruction in the face of a new and more highly contagious strain of the virus. While the elderly and some key workers are already receiving the COVID vaccine is some parts of the world, the end of the current situation still seems far away for most and, almost a year into the crisis, with stress levels high and energy levels low, school employees are finding themselves at higher risk of burnout.

Burnout is a much overused word these days, bandied around with little regard for its true meaning. A real occupational burnout is something to be taken very seriously, however, as it can come at great personal cost to physical and mental health, involve a long recovery, destroy careers and remove some of our most valuable educators and leaders from the profession. While emergency service workers such as police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses are the most likely to suffer occupational burnout, those in other people centred professions like care workers, social workers, teachers and school leaders are also considered high risk. It is important then that those working in schools understand how to recognise and overcome burnout situations.

What is Burnout and How do I Recognise It?

According to the World Health Organisation, burn-out is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout happens when the demands of a person’s job outstrip their ability to cope with the stress. It’s a common misconception that burnout is caused by simply working too long or too hard, however. Maslach, the foremost researcher in the field of burnout, identifies six elements of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Burnout develops when one or more of these six areas is chronically mismatched between an individual and their job, bringing not only feelings of exhaustion but also feelings of negativity and hopelessness towards the job.

With teaching identified as a high risk profession for burnout, it is important that educators know what signs to watch out for, if teacher and school leader burnout is to be avoided. So how do you recognise when the exhaustion that you regularly experience may be developing into something more serious?

Signs of Teacher and School Leader Burnout

1. Signs of Exhaustion

  • Chronic fatigue, which may begin with a lack of energy and feeling tired but progress to feeling physically and emotionally depleted.
  • Insomnia, which in the early stages may manifest in having trouble falling staying asleep one or two nights a week but may become more persistent.
  • Impaired focus, which may be mild at first but may eventually impact on the ability to make decisions or solve problems.
  • Physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and headaches.
  • Increased illness due to a weakened immune system immune system, leading to more infections, colds and flu than usual.
  • Anxiety, manifesting in increased tension, worry, and edginess, which may get worse over time.
  • Depressive symptoms like sadness, hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness.
  • Anger, which may present as tension and irritability with others but can escalate to angry outbursts and serious confrontations at home and in the workplace.
  • Lack of self-care, including the use of increased passive coping strategies like alcohol, drug-taking, smoking, eating too much or too little, drinking too much caffeine, gambling and excessive spending.

2. Signs of Cynicism or Detachment from Work

  • Negative feelings about the workplace, leaders, colleagues, students/pupils or parents, which may impact on trust issues.
  • Loss of enjoyment, manifesting in not wanting to go to work, being eager to leave, avoiding projects or planning ways to escape work altogether.
  • Disillusionment with the purpose or value of your work, your role or the school as a whole.
  • Seeking isolation, which may begin with mild avoidance of interaction with colleagues but may escalate to avoiding interactions completely.
  • Detachment or feeling disconnected from others in the school community or from the school environment.

3. Signs of Reduced Professional Efficacy

  • Lack of productivity and poor performance, despite longer hours spent working.
  • Preoccupation with work, failing to take time out from thinking about work or working obsessively.
  • Lack of motivation or uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for work particularly in those who have previously had high levels of commitment to their role.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Burnout is identified by the WHO as an occupational condition rather than a medical condition and as such can be hard to distinguish from the physical or mental health conditions to which it may be linked like depression, anxiety disorders or chronic fatigue syndrome. The questions listed below are a useful tool to help you reflect on whether you may be close to a burnout situation. If you answer no to all of these questions then you are most likely not suffering from burnout. If you answer yes to one or two then this should be a wake-up call that you may be heading towards a burnout situation and need to address the chronic stress in your life to ensure that it is not becoming unmanageable. If you answer yes to more than two of the questions then it may be worth seeking advice from your doctor.

  • Do I feel exhausted all the time, even following a good night’s sleep or after a break from work? Do I have to drag myself into school, have trouble getting started or run out of energy early in the day?
  • Have I become more cynical or critical at school? Do I feel disillusioned with my job or lack the normal satisfaction I would feel from my achievements?
  • Have I become more irritable or impatient with students/pupils, colleagues or parents? Have I been more angry than usual or have I been finding myself in conflict with others more frequently?
  • Am I finding it harder than usual to concentrate, be productive, make decisions or solve problems?
  • Am I using food, drugs, alcohol or similar crutches more often to help me feel better or numb how I feel?
  • Am I troubled by new or increased physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach or bowel problems or chest pain?

How to Overcome Teacher and School Leader Burnout

If you have signs of burnout, the first step in addressing this (after consulting a doctor) is to reflect upon and take stock of the stress in your life and consider ways in which you may reduce school-related stress to make it more manageable. Educators must acknowledge that, in order to continue to care for their school community, they need to prioritise taking care of themselves and accept that they need to make time for their own physical and mental wellbeing, without feeling guilty that they are doing so.

As the combination of factors contributing to teacher or school leader burnout are likely to be different for each individual, there is no one size fits all approach to overcoming burnout. Some basic strategies that benefit almost everyone are as follows.

Take a stress inventory by making a list of all of the situations at school that cause you to feel stressed, anxious, frustrated, fearful or helpless and list suggestions for how each stressor may be ameliorated.

Avoid new commitments or responsibilities while you get the situation under control by saying “no” more often.

Delegate as much as possible, while you find ways to make your stress more manageable, even if this means tasks will be done more slowly or not as well.

Increase opportunities for rest and accept that rest is not a waste of time but a basic biological need, essential for survival. Read The Power of Rest by Matthew Edlund for ideas on how to easily increase, mental, physical, social and spiritual rest in your day-to-day life.

Make time for a rich and satisfying life outside of work focused on things that you feel passionate about.

Create better boundaries between school and home by setting clear limits on the amount of work you take home and the number of hours you work at evenings and weekends. Find ways to manage your use of technology to facilitate this.

Seek support, by sharing your concerns about a possible burnout with family, friends, close colleagues or a professional coach or counsellor. If you have access to an employee assistance programme (similar to that provided by Education Support in the UK) take advantage of the services offered.

Take self-care practices seriously. Effective self-care will look different for each individual but may include time spent in nature, listening to music, reading a book, taking a hot bath, yoga, massage, meditation, exercise, cooking a healthy meal, or practising self-compassion.

Should I Seek Help from my School?

Making your headteacher/principal, or if you are a school leader your chair of governors/directors/trustees, aware that your stress is becoming unmanageable is a big step for many and for some may be unthinkable. Each individual needs to consider their context and make a decision about whether sharing their concerns is likely to improve their situation. In some countries, employers have a duty to manage the wellbeing of their workers and legislation prevents workers with mental health conditions (which may be linked to high stress levels) from being discriminated against in the workplace. Under the UK Equality Act 2010, for example, employees can request reasonable adjustments to their working conditions if they experience a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition that lasts for 12 months or more. The UK Health and Safety Executive also recommends that employers support reasonable adjustments for all employees who are suffering some form of mental ill health. Advice on how to request this can be provided by your trade union, if you are a member. While some schools may welcome the opportunity to support educators in managing their stress levels to avoid burnout situations occurring, sadly this will not be the case in all schools. Despite worldwide efforts to raise awareness around the impact of stress and mental health issues, speaking out may still render teachers and leaders vulnerable to being stigmatised and impact on their job security, leaving many with no choice but to self-manage the situation.

Final Words

While occupational burnout is a serious condition, no matter how physically exhausted or emotionally depleted educators feel, it is possible to recover from and reignite previous passion for your work. For most, recovery can be facilitated through the establishment of new habits, the redefinition of roles and redistribution of workload, along with some professional help. For a small number, like myself, it may involve a more drastic change of focus, which can offer more balance to allow for a greater enjoyment of life.