10 Ways to Beat Staff and Teacher Burnout

10 Practical Strategies for Beating Staff and Teacher Burnout

Teacher burnout is a growing problem in schools worldwide.  The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Someone experiencing burnout may feel as though they can never truly catch up with all of their to-dos and life or work’s incessant demands.  As a result, they may wake up feeling exhausted every day, only to try and power through more tasks just to keep up with everything. 

Burnout occurs when we’re overwhelmed, overworked, emotionally drained, and don’t have the proper time to rest and recover. 

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • What burnout looks like
  • What causes teacher burnout
  • How to support burnt-out teachers and staff 

What does burnout look like?

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight – It’s an accumulation of stress over time that, when unaddressed, eventually compounds and breaks us down.

Once we’ve reached a point of burnout, we don’t have nearly enough energy to show up to work and feel engaged, let alone perform at our best.  Most who show up for work while feeling burnt out are only hanging on by a thread.

Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Short temper 
  • Disengagement from life and work
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lower performance at work
  • Negative attitudes toward work or colleagues
  • Increased absenteeism 

Burnout can also show up as physical symptoms, including:

  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Disrupted sleep cycle/insomnia
  • Lower immunity (getting sick more frequently)
  • Exhaustion

Staff who feel burnt out are also likely to feel less confident in their teaching or working abilities which can slowly deteriorate their self-esteem.  They’re also more likely to withdraw and isolate rather than participate in socialising with colleagues. 

What Causes Teacher Burnout?

According to Gallup research, five factors impact staff and teacher burnout the most: 

  1. Unfair treatment: Staff who feel they are being treated unfairly at work are 2.3x more likely to experience burnout.  Unfair treatment could look like favouritism, inconsistent pay or policies, or mistreatment by another staff member or leader.  This breaks the trust that is crucial for workplace relationships to thrive. 
  2. Unmanageable workload/being overworked: Staff who feel their workload is unmanageable are 2.2x more likely to say they experience burnout often.  Teachers wear many hats, including mediator, parent, administrator, rule enforcer, nurse, and counselor.  These duties don’t necessarily fall into the traditional job description of a teacher but are natural roles they’re expected to take on, which add to their load. 
  3. Unclear communication: Clear communication in the workplace is key for effective collaboration.  When leaders don’t provide staff with the information they need to do their job effectively, staff are more likely to become frustrated and stressed out.  
  4. Lack of leader support: Supportive leaders help buffer the effects of burnout by listening to their staff’s needs and helping to find solutions when they’re struggling.  When this support is missing, staff are more likely to feel isolated and withdraw, resulting in lowered engagement and work performance. 
  5. Unreasonable time pressure/lack of time: When staff have sufficient time to complete their work, they are 70% less likely to experience burnout.  Unreasonable pressure and deadlines can put staff under extreme stress and create a situation where they never truly feel caught up with work or, worse yet, where they can’t find a balance between work and personal life.  Adjusting how we, as leaders deliver work and training teachers and staff in time management skills can help them prioritise tasks and manage their time more effectively and reduce stress. 

Other possible causes of teacher burnout include:

  • Lack of resources: We saw the effects of this at the height of the pandemic when teachers were suddenly asked to deliver the curriculum remotely versus in person.  Many didn’t have the resources or know-how to do this effectively.  When teachers are left to fend for themselves to tread through unknown waters, it adds pressure to their load and takes away from their teaching efficacy. 
  • District and government mandates: Testing, assessments, and an obligation to follow the given curriculum put teachers under added stress.  Vande Corput (2012) found that these government mandates have had a negative impact on teachers, their preferred styles of teaching, and lesson content.
  • COVID-19:  With the pandemic came remote and hybrid learning and numerous other changes to the life we’d always known.  Teachers had to adapt quickly to the never-ending changes, burdening an already stressful situation. Many are still recovering from this or experiencing implications.
  • Staff shortages: The added stress that’s come with teaching through a pandemic has meant many teachers have given up their high-stress education career in favour of a less stressful one.  Schools across Australia are struggling to retain and hire new staff, which means those still there are taking on more than they should. 

How to Support Burnt Out Teachers and Staff

When we focus on practical ways to prevent and manage teacher burnout, we can see a decrease in disruptive behaviour among students and greater general stability of the classroom, as well as student motivation and academic commitment.  Teachers with lower stress levels and burnout symptoms and classes equipped with high coping skills have been associated with enriched student outcomes (Pozo-Rico et al., 2020). 

School leaders are responsible for creating a workplace that promotes positive employee experiences.  Below are some ways leaders can contribute to doing that in a way that’s supportive to staff struggling with or at risk of burnout. 

1. Identify those who are experiencing or “at risk” of burnout 

Consider as a leadership team which of your staff could be at risk of burnout. Then, reflect as a leadership team about your own burnout and chronic stress. Reflect on your check-in and communication channels with these key staff. Ensure all staff are checked in with regularly and asked about their mental/emotional health and encouraged to seek support or apply individual strategies to support their wellbeing. Additionally, consider enrolling leaders and/or staff in a Mental Health First Aid course that supports professionals to learn about the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems in adults, how to provide initial help, where and how to get professional and effective help and support during a crisis.

2. Offer special accommodations for staff struggling to return or stay at work

Provide support to any staff struggling with their mental health and/or living with a mental health condition.  Provide and promote confidential and easy access to a range of external and internal mental health supports (e.g., Employee Assistance Program, welfare staff, grievance officers, HR, peer supporters, and ‘wellbeing champions’). Make reasonable adjustments for staff members who are struggling with burnout or mental health challenges e.g. part-time working arrangements, return to work options, and reducing teaching load to factor in a day off a fortnight. Finally, consider offering Group or Individual Wellness Coaching opportunities for interested and/or “at-risk” staff

3. Identify and address the top stressors for staff

Conduct a school scan of wellbeing where you collect and review multiple sets of data designed to reveal valuable information about staff wellbeing and morale. A well-constructed Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey that asks the right kinds of questions is a great tool to begin conducting your school scan. Ours is divided into four sections that explore general staff wellbeing, burnout risk, workplace wellbeing, top stressors, staff attitudes, and the current approach to staff wellbeing. Through this survey, you will be able to identify the priority areas needing attention at your school.

4. Communicate effectively

When leaders proactively offer up information, communicate with intention and clarity, are good listeners, use emotional intelligence, ask questions, and invite feedback from staff, staff are more likely to trust and respect them.  Leaders should keep lines of communication open for questions or concerns to be brought up in a safe, supportive space.  

When staff and teachers are clear on what is expected of them, it leaves less room for confusion and frustration.  Leaders should ensure that staff are adhering to their job descriptions as much as possible and, if more is needed, that this is communicated clearly along with making accommodations to ensure staff are set up for success. 

5. Make wellbeing part of your school culture

Embed a focused approach to staff wellbeing and school culture into your “way of doing” using Positive Psychology’s ‘PERMA(H) Model’, an inquiry approach and the advice of leading wellbeing organisations.

If we look at wellbeing from Positive Psychology’s PERMAH Model perspective, we know that positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, and health all play a part in our wellbeing.  When work positively affects each of these areas of an individual’s wellbeing, they’re less likely to burn out and more likely to remain engaged.  Making wellbeing part of your culture encompasses everything from encouraging healthy habits, supporting each other’s wellbeing, ensuring everyone has access to a healthy work-life balance and providing support to any staff who are struggling with their mental health and/or living with a mental health condition

6. Educate leaders and staff on mental health and burnout

Increase the leadership team’s knowledge about mental health and be aware of the support available. 

Provide school staff with training on burnout, strategies to manage and prevent it, and ways to support others struggling with burnout.  Consider providing wellbeing focused professional learning for interested staff. Suggested sessions include: ‘Give your Staff a Voice’, ‘Staff Wellbeing 101’, ‘Mental Health 101’

Provide time for all interested staff to complete a ‘Personalised Staff Wellbeing Action Plan’ during allocated school time. Take special note and keep track of those who you may have identified as needing extra support or who are at risk of burnout

7. Set boundaries and create a schedule

Put a stop to overworking or working outside of regular business hours.  Communicate the times of day/week you expect staff to be responsive and enforce ways to dwindle or avoid communication evenings and weekends.  Encourage teachers to take mandated breaks throughout the day and provide times for collaborative planning, marking, etc.

8. Make work meaningful for staff

A part of the wellbeing puzzle includes finding meaning in the things or job we do.  One way we can do this in schools is by checking in with staff, asking if they feel their work is meaningful and exploring what could make it more fulfilling for them based on their strengths or interests.  See if there are ways to shuffle around tasks or roles so that your staff feel like they’re doing work most suited to them individually.

9. Focus on strengths-based feedback and development

When teachers are stressed or burnt out, they’re likely to doubt themselves and question their abilities.  Taking a punitive approach when performance is slipping could only make matters worse.  Instead, by highlighting the strengths and providing opportunities to develop areas needing support, you help rebuild a sense of security and the confidence to help them get back on track.  

10. Talk and listen

Ensure all staff are checked in with regularly, asked about their mental/emotional health, and encouraged to seek support or apply individual strategies to support their wellbeing.  Asking staff about factors that can indicate burnout helps bring more awareness to the acute needs of staff within a school setting and can guide future decision-making or actions. Our ‘Give your Staff a Voice’ workshop provides staff and leaders an open forum to share their workplace experiences, provide respectful feedback, and everyone can reflect on what it is they need in order to perform their best at work.

Conclusion 

Teacher and staff wellbeing is critical to our schools’ success.  When staff suffer from burnout and other symptoms related to chronic stress, they’re less likely to feel engaged and satisfied with their jobs- this leads down a slippery slope of decreased morale, productivity, and collaboration which affects the school culture as a whole.  Before we begin addressing teacher burnout in our schools, though, it’s important that we take the time to give our staff a voice and express what aspects of their jobs are causing them to feel stressed and what they need to perform their best. 

Our ‘Give Your Staff a Voice’ workshop does just that.  This workshop creates a safe and interactive space for leaders, teachers, and staff to share their observations and respectful feedback. 

By the end of the session, staff will have created a joint vision for how they would like their school culture to look, sound, and feel and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for working together towards improving school culture. 

To learn more or book a virtual or in-person workshop for your school staff, check out my Staff Development Workshop offerings here!  

Sources

  1. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases 
  2. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/313160/preventing-and-dealing-with-employee-burnout.aspx 
  3. https://positivepsychology.com/teacher-burnout/ 
  4. https://scholar.google.com.au/scholar_url?url=https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/22/8633/pdf&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Qu8XYsWJMfKM6rQPnNW-8Ag&scisig=AAGBfm17tEQRPPHkmnxQGNnkCr7dwQjVtg&oi=scholarr 

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