Five signs that you’re close to teacher burnout

Some stress and tiredness is inevitable in teaching, but watch out for the signs of deeper problems, says Jo Steer
2nd January 2021, 12:00pm


Five signs that you’re close to teacher burnout

Maintaining a good work-life balance is difficult in any profession.

The wonders of technology have given us endless ways to blur the boundaries, meaning that we often take our work home, physically, emotionally and mentally.

Despite what some may think, teachers don’t “own” work-related stress. But by golly we’ve earned a majority share.

Quick read: The workload epidemic: do the ends justify the means?

Quick listen: The truth about mental health in schools

Want to know more? The disturbing link between education and health

Given our excessive workloads, accountability measures and the fact that we work more overtime than any other industry, it’s no wonder that 67 per cent of teachers describe themselves as “stressed at work”, with many showing actual symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression. 

The truly tragic thing is that we’re not surprised by this. To us, the language of stress, panic attacks and antidepressants has become commonplace and normalised.

The risk of teacher burnout

We accept and expect it. Some of us even seem proud of it, bragging about how little sleep we’ve had or how stressed we are, as if these things are synonymous with success.

We tend to ignore the warnings from our bodies, committing ourselves wholly to the school timetable. We don’t stop when we’re tired, we stop when term ends (even if we’ve contracted a moderate version of the Black Death along the way).

Of course, there will always be certain events that trigger an increase in this stress: exam time, data deadlines, observations and the head’s repeated insistence that you join in with your students’ “daily mile”.

But if a bad day becomes a bad week, month or term, then you may be getting close to burnout. Here are the signs to look out for:

1. Restlessness

A racing mind, the need to be constantly busy and an inability to switch off and/or be still are all warning signs that you’re heading for burnout. These can be accompanied by a host of uncomfortable physical sensations including shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, shakes, tight muscles, dizziness, nausea, out-of-body experiences, panic attacks and more.

Insomnia is also a common but distressing side effect.

2. Detachment

Losing interest in work or everything outside of work (hobbies, activities and entertainment that you usually enjoy) is a worrying sign. When I went through burnout, I felt detached from reality - and incredibly numb.      

3. Mindlessness

If your mind is racing, you’ll very likely have big problems concentrating. Maybe work takes much longer than it should; maybe you’re extra clumsy and forgetful; maybe you get to work, without any memory of how you got there.

These are clear signs that your brain is overworked.

4. Self-doubt

Perhaps one of the cruellest side effects of teacher burnout is that, despite putting work above all else, you’re not even left with your self-esteem intact.

Instead, you’re often left feeling as if you can’t teach, that you’re a fraud, that you can’t keep up and therefore must be inadequate. If you’re increasingly insecure and unsure of yourself, you might be nearing burnout.

5. Negativity

Sunday night dread and ranting about work isn’t uncommon in any profession. But if you’re finding yourself consumed by negativity, unable to think, see, hear or say anything remotely positive; if those feelings of dread become an everyday feature of life, then there’s something very wrong.

No matter what the symptoms, the key here is to notice change; in your body, mind, emotions and your behaviour. Like any disease, it’s better caught early, before it does long-lasting damage.     

If you’re already at breaking point, the Education Support offers a free helpline to teachers, no matter what your problem. Call 08000 562 561 at any time, to speak to a trained counsellor.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of special educational needs and disability interventions, as well as wellbeing strategies

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