Prevent teacher burnout with this wellbeing intervention

Everyone knows teachers are at risk of burnout, but well-meaning interventions aren’t always thought through. So use a framework such as ‘wish, outcome, obstacle, plan’ to support the mental health of staff, urges school counsellor Mark Samways
5th April 2019, 12:03am
Can This Wellbeing Initiative Help Teacher Stress?


Prevent teacher burnout with this wellbeing intervention

That teaching is a stressful profession should come as no surprise to anyone. A series of reports over the past five years have all found the same thing: high levels of occupational stress and burnout.

According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach and Jackson, 1986), “burnout” is characterised by three symptoms: emotional exhaustion, conceived as the feeling of being physically and emotionally over-extended; depersonalisation, defined in teaching as a distant attitude toward students; and a loss of self-confidence and lack of personal accomplishment.

So, what are we going to do about it? The response has generally been to set up some form of “wellbeing intervention”. It’s the latest craze to hit our school corridors, but how serious are we about it? How well researched are the interventions? How closely are we monitoring whether they are having any impact?

The first thing to recognise is that wellbeing is not about a one-off session on a Wednesday afternoon - it’s a culture, a language and a philosophy that you have to implement, from the admin staff to the headteacher. Second, you have to look at the key stressors in your school and work out what changes you can make to reduce those stressful elements.

Third, you need to build a system that can support teachers who are stressed. There is no blueprint that you can implement wholesale: all schools are different and you will need an approach that suits your context. However, there is a wealth of research coming out of positive psychology that can certainly point you in the right direction.

Don’t be fooled by the term “positive psychology”. This is not an airy-fairy world where we focus on all things positive and ignore the negatives. You will still have the same stressors as you had before - it’s the way you work with the stress that changes.

Positive psychology was developed by Professor Martin Seligman. He created the Perma model, with its five core elements of wellbeing. Perma stands for “positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments”.

These are not prescriptive. You cannot download a PDF that will tell you what to do for each. Rather, they are descriptive: they act as a nudge to look at these areas and see what can be changed.

My advice would be to start any attempt at building a wellbeing programme with these five elements. Take each, set yourself a target and work out how you can best achieve it.

For example: ask yourself: “What would our school look like if we improved our relationships by 10 per cent?” And then ask: “What would it take to achieve this?” One tool that you could use to brainstorm this is a Woop, which stands for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan” ( It works like this:

  • Wish: write down what you are trying to achieve. In this case, it would be to improve relationships.
  • Outcome: say what the result would be. If you were to achieve your wish, what impact would it have?
  • Obstacle: note any obstacles you might face, such as limited time, resources or expertise.
  • Plan: consider how you could overcome the obstacles you have identified in order to achieve your wish.

Going through this process does not ensure success; you will still experience failures. It’s helpful to evaluate the Woop in these situations, to see where it went wrong and if there are alternative paths that you could take. Did you identify an achievable goal? Did you identify the right challenges?

But Woop will vastly increase your chances of success. By using it, you can think through the process properly and identify the right elements to tackle. This also leads to an increased chance that staff will buy into the programme: success breeds engagement.

We need to treat wellbeing as we would any other aspect of a school. It is not something you can bolt on to someone’s role or make a half-hearted play at. This is happening too often already. Don’t let wellbeing be a craze. Invest in implementing the best possible system you can. It should be an integral part of how we run our schools.

We have to educate ourselves first before we can even think about educating others. When we teach our own staff to look after their wellbeing, then it filters down through the school organically before we have even started explicitly teaching it or talking about it to pupils.

Mark Samways is school counsellor at Dubai College. He tweets @DCol_Wellbeing

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “Woop, woop (that’s the sound of stress relief)”

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