Are schools on the brink of a burnout crisis?
The teaching profession was already ravaged by burnout due to excessive working and exhaustion – and then the pandemic arrived to fan the flames. Jessica Powell investigates the primary causes of workplace stress for teachers, the impact of Covid – and what schools can do to protect the wellbeing of their staff
"Instead of doing the marking, I spent half an hour rocking on our spare bed in the foetal position. That was the darkest place I’ve ever been.
“Suicide presented itself as an option; I quickly disregarded it, but it was scary to even have that thought. I went downstairs to where my wife and parents were – they were over for Sunday lunch – and broke down in tears.
“They were like, ‘Right, you’re not going to school tomorrow’. Instead, I went to the doctor, who signed me off for a month, which turned into two.”
At the time Chris Misselbrook, a secondary teacher in the South of England, was a year into a new job as head of department.
“There was a lot to learn,” he says. “But there was also enormous pressure I put on myself to be the perfect head of department. I was working ridiculous hours. I was really struggling and really tired – physically and mentally.”
Misselbrook’s GP had already diagnosed him with burnout. But his response to this had been to work even harder. “I decided the way to get back control was to work every weekend,” he remembers.
Fast-forward three months and everything came crashing down that Sunday afternoon. The next day Misselbrook was diagnosed with serious clinical depression.
Unfortunately, there will be teachers who will relate to some – if not all – of Misselbrook’s story: the punishing hours; the pressure to perform; that voice that whispers, “If I can just get through this week, then I’ll take a break.”
How many teachers? It’s hard to get a clear picture of the number who experience burnout, says Lisa Kim, lecturer in psychology in education at University of York – not least because many might not recognise or report it. “According to an NFER [National Foundation for Educational Research] report, more than 10 per cent of teachers leave within one year of qualifying and almost 30 per cent within five. Given that high workload is a well-known reason why teachers leave the profession, one could deduce that perhaps burnout is, too,” Kim says.
The pandemic has also likely had an impact on the number of teachers suffering burnout. The year that Misselbrook was signed off was what you might consider a “normal” year in education. Yet the 14 months that have passed since the first school closures have arguably been the most challenging and exhausting that the profession has ever faced. Surely that pressure has taken its toll?
“When governments were announcing that schools should close, lots of focus was on the implications for pupils’ academic achievement and wellbeing – and so it should be. But it seemed that discussions of the support teachers needed were largely missing,” says Kim, who led a project called “Being a teacher in England during the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Her team conducted interviews with primary and secondary teachers and found that many reported being physically and emotionally exhausted, which are symptoms of burnout. One interviewee shared the evocative image of their brain feeling like “a browser with 100 tabs open”.
On top of the increased workload that’s come with constantly chopping and changing between remote, in-person and hybrid teaching (not to mention the demands of teacher-assessed grades and “catch-up” ), the pandemic has further eroded the usual boundaries between home and work, which were already tenuous for many teachers – with senior leaders and students able to get in touch instantly at any hour. Stress has also been compounded by a host of new Covid-related challenges, such as enforcing mask-wearing, scrubbing down desks and covering for self-isolating colleagues.
In fact, taking stock of the past 14 months in education, it seems that rather than asking how many teachers are suffering from burnout, the more sensible question might be: who isn’t?
Yet, for all the ways the pandemic may have exacerbated the problem, it has also provided the impetus for us to take a closer look at the issue of burnout in the profession and consider what politicians, school leaders and the teachers themselves can do about it.
Teacher mental health: The risk of burnout
So, what exactly is burnout? It’s one of those words that gets bandied about in the staffroom when everyone’s feeling overworked and under pressure. But there’s more to it than that. In 2019, the World Health Organization released a detailed definition of burnout as a syndrome – clearing up confusion over the term and, in the minds of many experts, elevating it to something we should take more seriously. The definition reads: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.”
Many teachers will be able to say that they have experienced all these symptoms to some degree in the past year. Does that mean they should all be getting signed off with burnout? Well, it’s likely to be a question of scale, and the impact that these symptoms are having on individual teachers’ lives.
Haili Hughes, a teacher in Greater Manchester, says that her own experience of burnout some years ago was driven in part by the sheer volume of work she was managing.
“I was working probably 20 hours a day but my teaching was the poorest it had ever been. I was spending my time crunching data, doing paperwork. I lost the love for teaching because I didn’t have the mental capacity or physical energy to hone my craft,” she says.
Like Misselbrook, Hughes was facing a situation in which the effects of the workplace stress she was experiencing were becoming unsustainable.
For her, workload was a huge part of the problem. But high workload alone isn’t a guarantee of burnout.
Psychologist Alan McLean, who specialises in education, notes that the accountability pressures that teachers face probably contribute, too, along with a lack of autonomy.
“Autonomy is gold dust for psychological wellbeing. The best cultures are those that give people lots of responsibility, challenges and demands but also lots of flexibility, ownership and independence,” he explains. “The emphasis on teaching to tests that routinises the job I’m sure has an effect on the level of burnout in the profession.”
Jamie Thom, a secondary teacher in Scotland who has also worked in England, agrees that the testing culture is at the heart of much of the stress that teachers face.
“There’s the pressure that comes from exam results and Ofsted gradings, and a lot of well-intentioned leaders might be driven by that and that stress is then filtered through the school,” he says.
These high levels of stress drive the work culture, which then feeds back into stress levels in a vicious cycle – something that Thom experienced at a previous school.
“I got promoted to being an assistant headteacher in an academy school. That came with the caveat that you had to work very long hours and Saturdays.
“The school culture was very much ‘work, work, work’. You had to upload your lesson plans on to a system where they were checked every morning, so obviously everybody was trying to write masterpieces. Some schools have a culture where they’re working teachers into the ground.”
It was in his second year into this job that Thom burned out. “My body pretty much just stopped working. I literally couldn’t get out of bed,” he says.
Workplace culture is another key cause of burnout, but for Thom, Misselbrook and Hughes, being promoted before they were ready was also a factor – a practice that they suggest is all too common in teaching.
“I set myself this unnecessary goal of being a head of department by the time I was 30,” admits Misselbrook. “I thought it would be a sign of success. And then when I got there, I was like, ‘Well, this is shit’. Nothing had changed in terms of my own happiness but now I had an enormous workload.”
A perfect storm
So, the teaching profession is, in many ways, already the perfect breeding ground for burnout, even without the pandemic: high levels of workload and accountability are coupled with stressful school cultures that encourage a race to the top.
The terrible irony is if the profession whips up the perfect storm for burnout, then teachers – by their very nature – may be the worst possible people to be thrown into that storm without a life jacket.
According to Thom, many teachers have what he calls a “perfectionist tendency”, which he believes can make them more vulnerable to the external factors that drive burnout.
Misselbrook agrees. “I think the type of person going into teaching is someone who puts others in front of themselves,” he says. “Everything you do as a teacher you believe will have a direct impact on the students’ learning – so you believe that if you do more, the children will benefit more. And that’s not always true.”
This drive to put others before yourself has been exacerbated by Covid.
“We’ve been using Microsoft Teams and when we first went into lockdown, kids were messaging me at 10, 11 at night and because I had the app on my phone, I was replying,” says Hughes.
The ways in which schools have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic are remarkable – delivering food, sourcing laptops, offering welfare support. However, this is something that McLean has watched with concern.
“When I see these angel teachers who are delivering food parcels, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I’m not criticising those doing it – and some may get a boost from it. But I think it’s a question of balance. I wonder if that is the role of the school. Sometimes you can give too much and not meet your own needs.”
At the same time, for some teachers the pandemic has threatened their sense of value in their jobs.
“When you’re in the classroom environment, it’s a reciprocal relationship – you know when a lesson is going well,” says Thom. “But when you’re teaching online, secondary kids mute themselves and turn their screens off, so you’re basically like a cheesy radio presenter delivering a monologue. I think that’s quite demoralising. A lot of people feel that their self-efficacy has taken a bit of a slap in the face.”
The additional sucker punch? In Kim’s work, she found that teachers felt the media had presented them as “villains that passed on the opportunity to be heroes” during the pandemic.
Thom agrees that this has been one of the most difficult aspects of teaching in the past year. “When there’s a headline ‘Teachers are failing this generation’, you think, ‘Oh God, am I?’ Because there’s this narrative in the press about teachers swanning around and having a jolly time, teachers are thinking, ‘I need to prove how much I’m doing,’ which can be a recipe for burnout.”
The risks of burning out have arguably never been greater, then. But what does all this tell us about how we might be able to address the problem – not just now, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, but in terms of those underlying factors that made the profession so ripe for burnout in the first place?
Thom, Misselbrook and Hughes are all hopeful that there will be a silver lining to the pandemic in the form of greater emphasis on the need to safeguard the wellbeing of school staff.
In May this year, the Department for Education published its new Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, which sets out commitments for ensuring the “wellbeing and mental health of everyone working in education” (see box, opposite).
Within schools, too, there have “been more conversations about supporting each other, wellbeing and self-care”, notes Thom.
Misselbrook believes that these conversations could lead schools to take steps to stamp out damaging cultures that are fuelling staff burnout.
“Schools can try and change the culture by not making work competitive – the number of times we [have been] in the staffroom on a Monday and there [has been] this passive competition about how much work people did over the weekend,” he says.
McLean suggests that leaders need to set clear expectations to help here.
“In a workplace, you’re trying to establish a shared reality, shared expectations. In a vacuum, people will fill it with all sorts of things, going the extra mile in different ways – it’s a bottomless pit,” he says.
It’s also important that we rebrand the role of the classroom teacher, suggests Thom, as this might curb the unhealthy race to the top of the career ladder.
“Being a classroom teacher isn’t given enough prestige,” he says. “People always say, ‘I’m “just” a classroom teacher,’ but it’s an incredibly important, meaningful and challenging job.”
In a dream world, of course, every teacher’s workload would be slashed. But Misselbrook argues that “you could really significantly reduce the number of teachers struggling with burnout just through stress management training”.
He has recently qualified as a mental health first-aid instructor (mentalhealthfirstaid.org) and thinks this training is a key way in which schools can help to protect their staff. “I think the first step is for line managers to become mental health first-aiders to put them in a position to spot the signs and signpost people to places to get support,” Misselbrook says.
McLean says peer mentoring can be another a powerful intervention – pairing people up to support each other.
While many experts are keen to stress that burnout usually signals a problem with a workplace, not a person, there may also be steps teachers can take to protect themselves.
“It’s quite easy to just blame it on the employer or the workload. I’ve gone back to work now; my workload now is arguably higher than it’s ever been, but I manage it so much better,” says Misselbrook.
The strategy that works for him? Staying after work on a Friday to plan all his next week’s lessons and tasks. “Sometimes I won’t leave until 7pm, but then I’ll do zero work over the weekend. I won’t even think about work because I know Monday morning’s lessons are literally laid out on my desk,” he says.
While he recognises that approach might not suit everyone, he believes that having a strategy is key. Thom agrees: “In teaching, we talk about the hours but we don’t always talk about what we’re doing within them. Is the hour I’m going to spend making this beautiful PowerPoint [presentation] going to be beneficial for the young people?”
Teachers also need to be able to admit that they are struggling, says McLean. He recommends reconceptualising negative emotions: rather than thinking of them as something to get rid of, we should see them as something to pay attention to. “They’re there to tell you to wake up and redirect yourself,” he says.
“I think teachers need to give themselves permission to go ‘Actually, I’m struggling,’” agrees Misselbrook. “I was my own worst enemy when it came to my own mental health.”
And yes, sometimes that may mean redirecting yourself to a different school. “Some schools are run in ways that are not healthy and you have to step outside to realise, ‘Wow, that’s a really dysfunctional place,’” says Thom.
But sadly, escaping a toxic workplace doesn’t always mean that you will instantly avoid burnout. “I struggled for a couple of years after leaving my previous school,” Thom admits. “For a start, you do feel almost humiliated because you think, ‘Why has this happened when other people seem to be functioning really well in the same environment?’ And a burnout experience is quite traumatic. Unless you deal with all the feelings of stress and anxiety you experienced, you take them to another environment with you.”
“For people who’ve experienced burnout, their identity has been eroded, their self-worth has been eroded. It’s cumulative – drip, drip, drip. It takes quite a long time to rebuild,” says McLean.
“I always encourage people to do doodles to visualise the different elements of their life – family life, friends, hobbies, etc. It can help them see their emotional world in the round and give them a bit of perspective.”
In fact, that’s one further positive thing that Thom believes may have come out of the pandemic: a chance for a fresh perspective. “I’ve had a lot more time with my wee boy and have really valued that and have thought, ‘How can I use my time more effectively when I’m back in school so I can keep some of that going?’” he says. “Hopefully people will have thought a bit more about work-life boundaries, balance and valuing the things that are really important.”
Jessica Powell is a freelance journalist
This article originally appeared in the 11 June 2021 issue under the headline “Are we being engulfed by burnout?”