What is teacher burnout and how to avoid it | Education Support
Coronavirus update: We continue to be here to provide mental health and wellbeing support to all education staff.

What is teacher burnout and how to avoid it

9th April 2019

Being a teacher is fulfilling. It’s an ever-changing career, that inspires and educates. But it’s also exhausting, mentally and physically.

Often those outside of the profession only see the 13 weeks of holiday, a 9 am – 3:30pm day and then a few INSET days thrown into the mix, leaving some to ponder why we struggle at times. Many do not see the burdens placed on schools, senior leaders and teachers; not only do we seem to be trying to teach the next generations the knowledge and skills they need for a successful life, we’re also being asked to play a huge societal role without the budgets and funding.

It’s not a surprise therefore that so many leaders and classroom teachers, both new and experienced face burnout at some point in their career. But what is it and how can it be avoided?

What is occupational burnout?

Occupational burnout is considered to be the result of long-term work-related stress that leads to exhaustion and the inability to function effectively with an array of mental, physical and behavioural characteristics.

Whilst at times, we may become stressed within our role, burnout occurs as a result of our inability to recover and return to normal conditions one week to the next due to prolonged periods of stress and excessive demands on energy, strength and resources. Herbert Freudenberger coined the term in the 1970’s, recognising that professions which entailed high morals, dedication and commitment from workers that sacrifice themselves for the good of others were most at risk. It’s no wonder that as accountability pressures, workload and hours increase whilst pay remains low in comparison to other graduate roles, that burnout is so high amongst the teaching profession.  

Education Support's Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019 found that 72% of education professionals describe themselves as stressed, 57% of which have considered leaving teaching over the past two years, followed by a further 72% citing that workload was their main reason for considering leaving.”

When there are statistics such as those found in the 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index it’s no surprise that so many teachers are leaving the profession.

How can burnout be avoided?

I’m afraid there is no definitive answer to this one, as individuals our stress tolerances vary but what we do need is an understanding of the signs and proactive measures in place to reduce workplace stress and thus burnout. We need to look after ourselves and those we work with if we are to keep great teachers teaching.

Recognising the Signs

Burnout is considered to have a wide range of symptoms but there’s a lack of general agreement over all of those symptoms, however there are three main signs of the condition. They are:

  1. Exhaustion
    For teachers this may include both emotional and physical exhaustion. Evidence of this maybe frustration and being irritability, mood swings, impaired concentration, chronic fatigue and insomnia as well as physical symptoms such as increased illness, palpitations, gastrointestinal pain, headaches and dizziness.
  2. Depersonalisation
    For teachers this may develop through cynicism and detachment. Evidence of this maybe pessimism towards teaching, students, colleagues or the school itself, a lack of contact and involvement with others, increasing isolation or a loss of enjoyment from the things that once brought pleasure.
  3. Reduced performance
    For teachers this may develop through negative feelings, lack of productivity and poor performance. Evidence of this maybe feelings of hopelessness and apathy, low self-confidence, increased irritability with one’s self and others, increased time spent completing tasks and apathy to want to do so.

Avoiding burnout

Whilst it may not be possible to eliminate burnout within the profession, there are ways we can take action to avoid it for ourselves.

Here are my top tips for avoiding burnout:

1. Be aware of your emotions, stress levels and health.

Ensure you make time to ‘check in’ with yourself. Strategies such as mindfulness, mediation and journaling can be helpful as can talking to others (or even yourself).

When I reached a state of burnout, I didn’t know until after the experience, which was almost a year later. Having an awareness and understanding of stress, burnout and mental health is invaluable to understanding yourself. Since learning about burnout, the symptoms and consequences I’ve become far more aware of what Is going on in my head and therefore can ensure I take a step back as and when I need to without the immense guilt I used to feel.

It’s important you take the time to learn about you and take time to ‘check in’ before you need it.

2. Take charge of your wellbeing

As teachers and educators, we must remember that we are only human. There is only so much we can do in the time we have. We need to balance both our work and our own lives, whilst also fitting in some rest and relaxation.  Every one of us will have a different version of what it means to have good wellbeing and to have a happy work-life balance.

Yet far too often, we put our students before ourselves, putting yourself before work is not wrong, as the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you are to look after and provide the best education for your students, you have to spend time refuelling and looking after your health and wellbeing too.

Take time doing the things you enjoy; spend time with family and friends, get outside and enjoy the world. Plan your holidays and weekends in advance so you’re not tempted to just work. Give yourself a break.

3. Question the impact before taking on new work

Generally speaking, teachers want to do the best for their students, they also want to be good at what they do. That means we sometimes take on far more than we should.

Before my breakdown, I did everything I thought I had to do to succeed; yet too much of that work had little impact on student outcomes.  Learning to question the purpose of tasks and other requests, has helped to reduce my day-to-day workload.

If you’re asked to do something different or beyond the normal responsibilities of your role, question the request in relation to its purpose, impact on student outcomes and the time it will take to do. If the time vs impact is limited, consider alternatives and the necessity of the task, is it really required? Which leads me nicely onto tip 4…

4. Accept that sometimes you just have to say no

It is okay to say you can’t do something, whether it’s due to limited time, an already huge to-do list or the limited impact it will have on student outcomes; sometimes you just have to say “sorry, I can’t do that”.

Learning to say no to myself and to others, has been quite the learning curve, I’ve found it hard at times. However, learning to say no has been essential for my health, wellbeing and even sanity at times.

When you want the best for those around you, it can be hard to say no to things, but consider the impact, the time and your wellbeing.

5. Take mental health days

If you feel like you might be reaching a point of burnout, perhaps you’re exhausted, emotional and easily agitated, take a day or two to recoup. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Whether it be a school day that you take off sick, a weekend or during the holidays; take the time do relax and recover when you need to.

It can be tempting to pack weekends with activities to keep yourself entertained so you don’t just work through them; it can be tempting to go to work even when you haven’t slept well and you can feel your eyes closing; it can be tempting to want to spend time entertaining family or friends, but sometimes you need to take that break. You need to stop, rest and relax. Make sure you do.

6. Get support when you need it 

Please make use of the support available to you. Sometimes it's hard to speak to people you are close to and even harder to speak to a stranger. But the counsellors at the Education Support are fantastic! They listen, support and guide to help you to discover solutions that are best for you. A call to their helpline helped keep me in teaching. 

So remember their free and confidential helpline is here 24/7 throughout the UK on 08000 562561 for all education staff. Download this poster for your staffroom now! 

And after burnout?

Reaching burnout doesn’t need to be the end of your career in teaching. It just means you might have to step back for a little while. Whether that means taking time off, relinquishing a responsibility or changing schools, it is possible to continue a successful teaching career after experiencing burnout.

After my experience of burnout, I was torn between moving out of teaching or trying another school. During my time off, I was encouraged to apply to one more school. I panicked it would be more of the same; relentless workload, high expectations and limited support so at the interview I asked how they support staff wellbeing and was pleased with the response.

If you’re applying elsewhere after a period of burnout, don’t worry. If a school is worth working in, they will understand your experiences and will not hold it against you. Be honest, as it’s the only way to reduce the stigma surrounding it.

To read more on Victoria’s experiences and advice on tackling workload visit her blog, MrsHumanities.com, follow her on twitter (@MrsHumanities) and check out her book ‘Making it as  Teacher’ due for publication in May 2019. Pre-order available here.