Teacher Wellbeing & Burnout
The role of the educator and academic leader has drastically changed in the past 20 years. We see increases in expectations, variation within roles, technology shifts, and new mental health and pastoral care elements; all occurring within the school day, often with no or limited extra time to account for these additional responsibilities. Teachers are no longer simply instructional guides who facilitate education and learning; they are pastoral care providers, technology wizards, health and safety experts, who also help students to acquire knowledge, develop competence and real world skills.
When you consider the wide scope of skills a “teacher” is required to engage in on a daily basis, it is understandable that reported stress levels of school leaders are increasing, as expectations continue to escalate, with no evidence of slowing down. In fact, teacher burnout from excessive stress has been identified as a significant occupational hazard (García-Carmona et al. 2018). The research highlights that 89% of school leaders report experiencing stress at work and, within this, teaching professionals are much more likely to experience symptoms of depression, compared to the general population (32% vs 19%) (Evans et al., 2021). In the modern world, workplace stress is inevitable as professional role requirements evolve and expand, but we can learn to minimise its impact on wellbeing by focussing on beneficial self-care strategies.
What is wellbeing?
At its core, wellbeing is defined by two factors, how you feel and how you function. When we feel good, we tend to function well. When we function well, we are better teachers, leaders, friends or parents. Conversely, when we are stressed, overwhelmed or exhausted, our functioning and wellbeing suffers (Evans et al., 2021).
What is burnout?
The term “burnout” was coined to describe the process of gradual exhaustion and loss of commitment of workers. Burnout is defined as a psychological difficulty that develops in response to chronic work stress (Saloviita & Pakarinen, 2021). There are three key signs and symptoms of burnout:
- Feelings of reduced competence and professional efficacy
- Persistent cynicism and pessimistic perspectives
- Emotional exhaustion which can display as difficulties in emotion regulation and expression.
(Madigan & Kim, 2021).
How do we mitigate stress in order to manage burnout?
Two words: self care.
Ultimately, the self-care journey begins with the individual, but is maintained and supported by the policies and processes surrounding the professionals within the workplace. When wellbeing is prioritised, synergy occurs as leaders and teachers have space to flourish and sustain professional output, whilst feeling backed and encouraged to utilise self-care tools when needed.
In environments where there is an absence of commitment to teacher wellbeing and self care, there is opportunity for an increase in “competitive culture” which often negatively impacts the wellbeing of professionals. For example, in these environments, teachers can experience feelings of shame or guilt for taking a break, they may compare themselves with colleagues’ work output, and feel unable to request sick leave when needed. This culture encourages busier professionals who experience daily stressors and reduced opportunities for restorative activities, who are more likely to reach burnout as a result of reduced support and mental wellbeing.
It is crucial to prioritise self care and wellbeing in order to protect leaders and staff within the teaching team, to enable positive output, a sense of workplace support and positively prime everyone to do their best work.
Teacher Activity - Developing a self-care plan
This simple exercise invites you to reflect on different areas of your life and what you can do within these areas to support wellness and understand when and how to self care. Through this process you can develop a personalised self-care plan.
Take a moment to list what “wellness” looks like in these five core areas, that is to say what do these areas look like when you are at your best:
Work through what it looks like across these areas when wellbeing is compromised and self care is not prioritised.
The final step is to look at each category and list self care strategies that align with these domains. For example:
- For professional health, reaching out for support or taking micro-breaks may improve overall wellbeing at work
- For emotional health, it may help to go for a walk in the fresh air during a lunch break or at the end of your day, or connect with a healthcare professional.
- For spiritual health, it may help to connect with communities or groups which foster positive relationships, align with your values and opportunities for self-expression.
By the end of this task, you are left with a roadmap of what wellness looks like for you, an understanding of what signs of stress and burnout look like across all domains of health and some ideas for what can help you restore and “fill up your cup.”
We often know that we need to take time and prioritise self care, yet barriers get in the way. One way to shift this perspective is to think of self care in terms of the oxygen mask analogy: you have to put your own mask on first before you can help others. If you are a passionate teacher and want the best for your students, you can only give this if you are looking after yourself first.
It is important to note that mitigating stress is not just a solo effort - our leaders have a role to play as well. When the quantity of work required exceeds the time available, or when a job is too difficult for an employee's current resources this must be addressed - otherwise this is like adding flammable liquid to a fire. Here are some reactive solutions that leadership teams can take to “put out the flames” of burnout:
- Provide more training and/or scaffolding for new learning
- Give more time to complete tasks
- Reduce responsibilities
Do these suggestions look familiar? This is exactly what we use with our students who at different times need additional support.
When it comes to long-term proactive solutions and building a team culture that facilitates wellbeing here are some proactive strategies to consider:
- Give trust and promote autonomy
- Reward and motivations - when we feel valued and/or that our hard work is noticed, we feel good. We are reinforced to keep working well.
- Prioritise social connectedness across staff - building the sense of comradery rather than being a lone soldier.
We cannot pour from an empty cup and, if we want the best for our staff and students, we need to first look within and improve and maintain our wellness. If your school wants to be seen as well-oiled with a consistently high-performing team, it all starts with laying a strong foundation of resilience which comes first and foremost from a priority of wellbeing.
- Butler, L. D., Mercer, K. A., McClain-Meeder, K., Horne, D. M., & Dudley, M. (2019). Six domains of self-care: Attending to the whole person. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 29(1), 107-124.
- Evans, K., Hoyle, T., Roberts, F., & Yusuf, B. (Eds.). (2021). The Big Book of Whole School Wellbeing. SAGE.
- Hinds, D. (2019). Teacher recruitment and retention strategy.
- Jerrim, J., Sims, S., Taylor, H., & Allen, R. (2020). How does the mental health and wellbeing of teachers compare to other professions? Evidence from eleven survey datasets. Review of Education, 8(3), 659-689.
- Madigan, D. J., & Kim, L. E. (2021). Does teacher burnout affect students? A systematic review of its association with academic achievement and student-reported outcomes. International journal of educational research, 105, 101714.
- Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., Haverinen, K., Tikkanen, L., & Soini, T. (2021). Teacher burnout profiles and proactive strategies. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 36(1), 219-242.
- Saloviita, T., & Pakarinen, E. (2021). Teacher burnout explained: Teacher-, student-, and organisation-level variables. Teaching and Teacher Education, 97, 103221.
- Thom, J. (2020). Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom. John Catt Educational.