During my long career in education, I have met so many passionate educators — educators who, like many of their colleagues, are deeply committed to their students and their profession. However, I have also come to understand that this same passion and commitment can cause many educators to burn the candle at both ends during and outside of the regular school year, increasing the risk of burnout as educators give more than 100% each year.
Teacher burnout is an increasingly common phenomenon due to the demanding nature of the teaching profession. Long hours, stressful environments, and intense expenditures of energy and brainpower can all contribute to decreased health and wellness, especially over the course of multiple years. The long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and teachers alike have exacerbated these stressors. When educators don't enjoy teaching as much as they used to because they have tapped all of their reserves, they are likely well on their way to work fatigue and burnout — a trend which has significant implications for both educators and students.
For educators who find themselves in this situation, the best thing they can do for themselves is to remind themselves that they are not alone, that there is support available, and that there are some areas that are within their own control. This article offers ideas and resources for getting started, as well as some important information and research related to the big picture around teacher burnout. It also includes excerpts from AdLit.org's new series on Trauma-Informed Teaching featuring trauma expert Ricky Robertson.
Note: While the focus of this article centers on teachers and educators, it is applicable to multiple staff roles within school settings.
Burnout, Demoralization, and Compassion Fatigue
A year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization updated its definition of burnout as an occupational phenomenon versus a medical condition as follows: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) reduced professional efficacy” (WHO, 2019).
Teacher burnout refers to a state of chronic physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged job-related stress. It is characterized by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Burnout can affect teachers at any stage of their career, from novice educators to experienced professionals. The consequences of burnout are far-reaching, impacting not only teachers' personal lives but also their performance and effectiveness in the classroom.
Doris Santoro, professor of education at Bowdoin College in Maine, shows how demoralization, while synonymous with burnout, is a state of distress, disillusionment, and a loss of morale that occurs when teachers perceive a disconnection between their professional ideals and the reality of their work environment. Demoralization is often linked to factors such as perceived injustices, lack of professional autonomy, and a sense of powerlessness in making a positive impact on students' lives. Teachers experiencing demoralization may feel disheartened, frustrated, and devalued. They may question their efficacy as educators and experience a decline in their motivation and commitment to teaching.
These two distinctions can help understand the difference between the two:
- While burnout is primarily related to chronic stress and exhaustion, demoralization is rooted in a misalignment between teachers' professional values and the prevailing conditions in their educational settings.
- While burnout is a response to overwhelming demands and stressors, demoralization arises from a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the systemic aspects of the teaching profession.
Burnout is often a more temporary condition in which an educator has exhausted the personal and professional resources necessary to do the job. Demoralization occurs when an educator believes she is unable to perform the work in ways that uphold the high standards of the profession, and as staff shortages deepen across the country and workload increases, more educators are feeling burned out and demoralized (Walker, 2021). Both are equally prevalent.
In addition, many educators experience compassion fatigue, a complex and multifaceted phenomenon experienced by professionals in helping roles who are consistently exposed to the suffering and trauma of others, including students facing challenging circumstances. Prolonged exposure can lead to emotional exhaustion and a reduced capacity for empathy and compassion. The cumulative toll of supporting students' emotional needs without proper support or self-care can contribute to burnout among educators. Recognizing and addressing compassion fatigue is crucial for the well-being and effectiveness of these educators, as it allows them to continue providing compassionate care while prioritizing their own emotional needs.
Video: What Is Educator Burnout and Compassion Fatigue?
Educators are compassionate by nature; they want to make a difference in the lives of their students. Trauma expert Ricky Robertson explains burnout and compassion fatigue, which can arise from the seemingly endless demands on an educator (especially after the pandemic) and how awareness, education, and self-care can make a definitive difference for them and for their students. Mr. Robertson also discusses the importance of both self and collective care.
Research on Teacher Burnout
Several notable researchers have contributed to the study of teacher burnout. Maslach and Jackson (1981) introduced the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a widely used tool for assessing burnout levels. Their research highlighted three dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.
- Emotional exhaustion refers to teachers being unable to physically and emotionally provide for children due to stress.
- Depersonalization is a shift in attitude in a way that causes the teacher to view students, parents, and the school in general in a more cynical manner.
- Finally, a reduction in personal accomplishment refers to the teacher no longer feeling like he or she is having an impact on students.
The presence of these three factors positively correlates with a teacher’s chance of burning out (Grayson & Alvarez, 2007).
In a comprehensive study, Kyriacou (2001) emphasized the role of workload, student behavior, and lack of support as major contributors to teacher burnout. He found that high levels of workload, disruptive student behavior, and insufficient support systems significantly increased the risk of burnout among teachers.
Additional findings include the following:
- According to projections from The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 270,000 teachers are expected to leave the profession each year for the decade of 2016 through 2026, with the majority being elementary school teachers (Torpey, 2018).
- NCTAF estimates that one-third of new teachers leave after three years, and 46% are gone within five years (Barnes, Crowe, & Schaefer, 2007). That turnover has a negative impact on students, and a teacher shortage might be particularly disruptive in certain subjects that are already strained, such as English language learner (ELL) & bilingual teachers. Even if teachers do not leave, higher levels of job dissatisfaction and intentions to leave could affect teacher effectiveness & harm students’ academic progress.
- According to research conducted in 2017 at the University of British Columbia, it was discovered that students whose teachers reported burnout experienced heightened levels of stress hormones, indicating that teachers unintentionally transmit their stress to students.
- Teachers from diverse backgrounds may face additional stressors that can contribute to teacher burnout such as being called upon to handle responsibilities outside of their regular workload that include managing student behavior, addressing incidents or current events linked to racism, and translating and/or interpreting for families. They may also be facing bias, racism, and microaggressions within the workplace or communities.
Teacher burnout extends beyond the occasional stress experienced by many educators at some stage. It encompasses a psychological state capable of inducing depression, anxiety, and a range of other mental health challenges. Consequently, identifying both the origins and indicators of teacher burnout is crucial for the overall well-being of an educator.
Video: A Brief But Spectacular take on teacher burnout (PBS NewsHour)
Common Causes of Burnout
Teacher burnout is frequently driven by a combination of unreasonable expectations and conflicting demands, such as the following:
- Schedules and workloads: Large class sizes and poor schedules, including back-to-back classes without adequate breaks or prep periods, can lead to exhaustion and a lack of time for self-care. Traveling between schools, especially for teachers who work in multiple locations, adds additional stress and logistical challenges. Teaching classes outside of their certification, such as having to instruct subjects or grade levels outside of their expertise, can create feelings of inadequacy and intensify the workload, ultimately leading to burnout. And additional duties, such as coaching sports teams or supervising extracurricular activities, further contribute to teachers' workload and time constraints.
- Lack of resources and support: Insufficient resources and support can also exacerbate the stress and workload experienced by teachers. Inadequate funding for materials, limited access to high quality professional development opportunities, and inadequate support staff can leave teachers feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. Without the necessary resources and support, it becomes challenging to meet the diverse needs of students and effectively manage the demands of the classroom, leading to burnout.
- Lack of autonomy and control over decision-making: Teachers who feel restricted in their ability to make instructional choices or have limited input in school policies may experience a sense of frustration and disempowerment. This lack of autonomy can diminish their motivation and enthusiasm for teaching, contributing to burnout over time.
- High-stakes testing and accountability: The emphasis on standardized testing and accountability measures can create a culture of constant pressure and stress for teachers. The fear of negative consequences, such as school rankings or job security, can lead to heightened anxiety and a sense of being constantly evaluated, adding to the burden on teachers' shoulders.
- Low self-efficacy: When a teacher starts to doubt their ability to achieve their goals, this can contribute to stress and burnout. This is often exacerbated by the tendency of parents and administrators to blame teachers, leading to a decline in their self-esteem. When too much pressure is placed on teachers, they may start blaming themselves for their students' struggles and feel powerless to make a meaningful difference. In addition, challenges with co-workers can be stress-inducing.
- Classroom management: The presence of challenging behavioral problems and high rates of abensteeism within a classroom can eventually contribute to teacher exhaustion and a sense of ineffectiveness and growing disillusionment regarding their purpose in the educational setting.
- Fatigue and physical demands: Teaching often requires long hours, including after-school activities and weekend commitments. The blurring of boundaries between personal and professional life can lead to exhaustion and a lack of time for self-care and rejuvenation. Without adequate time for rest and relaxation, teachers are more susceptible to burnout.
Indicators of Teacher Burnout
Teacher burnout can manifest in various ways, and the signs may vary from person to person. However, here are some common signs and symptoms of teacher burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion: Teachers experiencing burnout often feel emotionally drained and depleted. They may find it difficult to connect with students and may experience a lack of enthusiasm or motivation.
- Physical fatigue: Burnout can lead to physical exhaustion, where teachers may constantly feel tired, even after getting enough rest. This fatigue can affect their ability to perform daily tasks effectively.
- Increased irritability and cynicism: Burnout can cause teachers to become easily frustrated, irritable, or impatient, even over minor issues. They may develop a negative or cynical outlook towards their work, colleagues, or students.
- Decreased job satisfaction: Teachers experiencing burnout may lose the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction they once had in their profession. They may feel a lack of purpose or fulfillment in their work, leading to a decline in motivation.
- Reduced effectiveness and productivity: Burnout can impact a teacher's ability to be productive and perform at their best. They may struggle to concentrate, make decisions, or plan effectively, resulting in a decline in their teaching quality.
- Withdrawal and isolation: Burnout can lead to social withdrawal, where teachers may start isolating themselves from their colleagues and avoiding social interactions. They may feel detached from their school community and lose interest in participating in extracurricular activities.
- Physical and mental health issues: Chronic stress from burnout can contribute to various health problems, such as headaches, insomnia, frequent illnesses, anxiety, depression, or even substance abuse.
- Increased absenteeism: Burnout may lead to a higher rate of teacher absenteeism due to illness or personal reasons. Teachers may find it challenging to find the energy or motivation to go to work.
It is important to note that these signs can be indicative of burnout, but they may also be symptoms of other underlying conditions. If someone is experiencing these signs, it is crucial to seek support from a healthcare professional or a counselor who can provide guidance and assistance.
Teachers may not realize that they are heading towards a state of exhaustion. Nonetheless, it can be beneficial to be aware of the symptoms mentioned above, which teachers may encounter to different extents, in order to recognize them in oneself or others at an early stage.
So where are you on the road to Teacher Burnout? This inventory tool created by MindTools uses an informal approach to assessing burnout.
As you interpret your score, please note this caveat. While it may be intuitively useful, it has not been validated through controlled scientific tests and must therefore not be used as a diagnostic technique. Please interpret the results with common sense and make allowances for any recent events that may have a disproportionate influence on your mood at the time you take the burnout self-test.
Stress: What Can You Do?
Stress among educators is directly related to absenteeism, burnout, turnover, and early retirement. Stress experienced repeatedly is classified as chronic. Chronic stress can impact the ability to perform our jobs: the decisions we make, our ability to learn new things, and how we manage our work & home relationships (AdLit, 2023).
These stressors appear to be inescapable and can lead to a variety of negative outcomes: cardiac and digestive issues, headaches, irritability, sadness, depression, sleep disturbances, and anger. Working in a school involves a great deal of social interaction. How educators feel and what they are experiencing impact student behavior and performance. Conversely, the stress our students experience can become our stress — secondary traumatic stress.
The Mayo Clinic has developed a framework known as the "4 A's" to provide guidance on stress relief techniques. These four strategies can help individuals effectively manage and reduce stress levels in their daily lives. Here is a brief summary of the Mayo Clinic's 4 A's for stress relief:
- Avoid unnecessary stress: This involves identifying and minimizing stressors in your life. It's important to recognize situations or people that consistently cause stress and find ways to either avoid or minimize exposure to them. This might include setting boundaries, saying no to additional responsibilities, or making lifestyle changes to reduce stress triggers.
- Alter the situation: If avoiding stress is not feasible, the next step is to try and alter the situation. This approach involves taking proactive steps to change or modify the stressful circumstances. This could include effective communication, assertiveness, problem-solving, or seeking support from others to find solutions and reduce the impact of stressors.
- Adapt to stressors: Sometimes, it's not possible to change the stressful situation. In such cases, it becomes crucial to adapt and develop resilience to better cope with stress. This may involve adjusting your expectations, reframing your perspective, practicing acceptance, or finding healthy ways to manage your emotions, such as through relaxation techniques or mindfulness exercises.
- Accept what you can't change: There are certain stressors that cannot be avoided or altered. In such instances, accepting the situation becomes essential. This means acknowledging that you cannot control everything and focusing your energy on things within your control. Building a positive mindset, practicing self-compassion, and nurturing a support network can help in accepting and managing unavoidable stressors (Sparks, 2019).
By incorporating these four approaches into their lives, individuals can develop effective stress management strategies. The Mayo Clinic's 4 A's provide a practical framework to address stress and promote overall well-being.
Proactive Strategies for Preventing Burnout
A baseline for any response to stress is self-care. Just as stress depends on the individual, so does the response. There is not one solution and at times it takes trial and error and patience. In order to have the stamina to respond to stress, it’s critical to be as healthy as possible. Here are eight proactive strategies from Prodigy (2020) that prevent teacher burnout and treat symptoms sooner rather than later.
1. Talk about teacher burnout.
2. Practice self-care.
3. Know when to take a break.
4. Plan for community.
5. Find out what actually went wrong.
6. Put things in perspective.
7. Try something new.
8. Ask for help when you need it.
It is important to know that self-care is not self-improvement. Think of it as having a relationship with yourself grounded in gentleness, humor and respect that includes strategies to soothe and alleviate stress as well as thinking of ways to put up boundaries, advocate for your needs, and lean into positive relationships (AdLit, 2023). Self-care starts with you. Engaging in any personal or professional change requires good health. This includes emotional and physical health as well as physical health.
According to the University at Buffalo School of Social Work (2023), the common aims of most self-care practices include the following:
- Managing and reducing stress
- Honoring emotional and spiritual needs
- Fostering and sustaining relationships
- Achieving an equilibrium across one's personal, school, and work lives
Avoiding the word "no" can stem from various reasons, such as being people-pleasers who prioritize maintaining harmonious relationships or setting unattainable standards and struggling to admit limitations. However, continuously saying "yes" can lead to a hectic schedule, heightened stress, and neglecting activities that genuinely bring joy. Additionally, it may make individuals susceptible to manipulation and guilt-tripping from those who exploit their giving nature and end up with burnout.
Here are eight strategies you can try to get better at saying “no”:
- Practice. Start with saying no to small things and work your way up.
- Listen and be sure you understand the request. Ask for details to make an informed decision and show you take the request seriously.
- Say “no” right away if you are sure, but if not, buy yourself time: "Let me check my schedule"; “Let me check with my boss/spouse”; "Ask me again on Monday.“
- Assess the request in terms of your commitments and priorities. Who is making the request? When is it due? Are you saying yes to the request or the person?
- Be direct, simple, respectful, and timely when you say no. Avoid vagueness or leaving doors open for negotiation.
- Don't overly apologize or overly explain your “no.”
- Thank the person for thinking of you/including you. It's polite and softens the “no.”
- Be prepared for attempts to persuade/negotiate - stick to your decision. Consider whether you could or would agree if certain conditions were met.
Advice for Systems-Wide Change
"Schools can support educator well-being by normalizing and embedding comprehensive mental health supports." (Walker 2021)
Addressing burnout often involves strategies focused on stress management, self-care, and support systems to alleviate the symptoms of exhaustion and detachment. "One and done" wellness days have proven to be ineffective for the long-term.
Preventing and addressing demoralization, on the other hand, requires efforts to restore teachers' sense of purpose, autonomy, and professional fulfillment. It involves creating supportive work environments that align with teachers' values, offering opportunities for professional growth and development, and recognizing and valuing their contributions.
What is the role of administrators?
Administrators play a crucial role in supporting educators. To prevent systemic burnout, they should:
- Develop a supportive workplace culture around mental health issues. This is extremely important because research shows that at least one-third of workers don't disclose mental health issues to their employers due to the stigma surrounding the topic.
- Understand that burnout is caused by organizational factors. This is crucial because many believe burnout is teacher specific. Although some individuals are more susceptible to stress, placing the blame on teachers doesn’t address the root cause of burnout.
- Examine the factors which contribute to educator burnout in order to mitigate their negative effects. Some strategies include fostering better collaboration, implementing effective teaching strategies, and encouraging educators to develop work-life boundaries.
- Proactively train all school members on the warning signs of mental health issues and on how to provide proper assistance to someone experiencing a mental health concern. (Diaz, 2018)
In addressing demoralization, administrators can make a difference by:
1. Providing adequate resources and staffing to alleviate workload pressures: Administrators understand that educators face immense workloads and strive to alleviate these pressures by ensuring they have access to the necessary resources. This includes providing up-to-date teaching materials, textbooks, technology tools, and classroom supplies. Additionally, administrators work to maintain appropriate staffing levels, ensuring that teachers have the necessary support from instructional aides, paraprofessionals, and other staff members.
2. Promoting a positive school culture that emphasizes well-being: Administrators recognize the importance of creating a positive school culture that values the well-being of educators. They foster an environment where teachers feel supported, respected, and appreciated. This can be achieved through various means, such as organizing staff appreciation events, acknowledging teachers' accomplishments, and implementing programs that promote mental health and well-being. By emphasizing well-being, administrators contribute to a positive and productive work atmosphere for educators.
3. Making available professional learning opportunities and mentoring programs: Administrators understand that professional growth is crucial for educators to stay up-to-date with best practices and enhance their teaching skills. They provide access to professional learning opportunities, which may include workshops, seminars, conferences, and training sessions. Administrators may also establish mentoring programs where experienced teachers mentor and guide new or less-experienced teachers. These programs help create a supportive network and encourage ongoing professional learning.
4. Implementing policies that prioritize work-life balance: Administrators acknowledge that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential for teacher well-being and job satisfaction. Administrators may also implement strategies to manage workload demands effectively, such as providing planning periods and collaborating with teachers to create manageable schedules. By prioritizing work-life balance, administrators ensure that educators have time for personal lives, rest, and self-care.
Sterling (2015) offers additional ideas for school leaders that include giving staff members a voice in schoolwide affairs and suggesting opportunities for districtwide impact.
Teacher burnout is a complex issue that demands attention and action from educational stakeholders. By understanding the causes, impacts, and preventive measures associated with burnout, educators, administrators, and policymakers can work together to create a supportive and nurturing environment for teachers. Prioritizing teacher well-being is not only essential for their professional growth and satisfaction but also crucial for the success and well-being of students they serve. The secret is to be proactive versus reactive. Now more than ever, it’s important for educators to take care of one’s mental and physical health. As tempting as it is to keep pushing yourself, remember that sometimes the most effective thing an educator can do is rest, reflect, and recover.
- How Burned Out Are You? A Scale For Teachers (Edutopia)
- How to Fight Burnout (Edutopia)
- 5 Ways School Leaders Can Work to Prevent Teacher Burnout (Edutopia)