Teacher burnout and how to avoid it

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

Articles / 7.5 mins read

Often those outside of the profession see only 13 weeks of holiday, a 9am – 3:30pm day plus 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 needed for a successful life, we’re also being asked to play a huge societal role without adequate funding.

It’s not a surprise therefore, that many leaders and classroom teachers, both new and experienced face burnout at some point in their career. 

But what burnout and how can it be avoided?

What is occupational burnout?

Most of us get stressed at work at some point. Burnout occurs as a result of sustained stress that never subsides. This is due to prolonged periods of intensity and excessive demands on energy, strength and resources. 

Herbert Freudenberger coined the term in the 1970’s. He recognised that professions which involve a strong sense of morality or purpose, and commitment from workers who sacrifice themselves for the good of others, were most at risk. 

It’s no wonder that teachers and everyone working education are at risk of burnout. Accountability pressures, workload and hours can increase stress and pay remains low in comparison to other graduate roles. On top of this, teachers and others in education have taken on a raft of social responsibilities during the pandemic. 

With such statistics it’s no surprise that so many teachers are leaving the profession.

84%

of teachers described themselves as stressed in the 2020 Teacher Wellbeing Index

51%

have considered leaving teaching over the past two years

68%

said workload was their main reason for considering leaving

How can burnout be avoided?

Sadly, there is no definitive answer to this. As individuals, our stress tolerances vary. What we do need is an understanding of the signs of burnout and the proactive measures that can be put in place to avoid it. 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 however, three main signs of the condition are:

Exhaustion

For teachers this may include both emotional and physical exhaustion. Evidence of this may be frustration and irritability, mood swings, impaired concentration, chronic fatigue and insomnia as well as physical symptoms such as increased illness, palpitations, gastrointestinal pain, headaches and dizziness.

Detachment from the job

For teachers this may develop through cynicism and pessimism towards teaching, students, colleagues or the school itself. The person with burnout may prefer to avoid contact and involvement with others, and experience a loss of enjoyment from the things that once brought pleasure.

Reduced performance

For teachers this may develop through negative feelings, lack of productivity and poor performance. Evidence of this may be 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.

“We need to look after ourselves and those we work with if we are to keep great teachers teaching.”

Avoiding burnout

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

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, meditation 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 so 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 rest and relaxation.  Every one of us will have a different version of what it means to have good wellbeing and 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 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 me 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’s a school day that you take off sick, a weekend or school holiday; take the time to 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. They listen, support and can coach and guide to help you discover solutions that are best for you.  So remember the 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! 


"The qualified counsellors on the Education Support helpline are fantastic and helped me stay in teaching!"

And after burnout?

Reaching burnout doesn’t need to be the end of your career in teaching. It just means you stepping 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.’ 

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