Don't fan the flames of burnout

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Perhaps you are one of the 81 per cent of teachers reported to have suffered work-related stress. Or maybe you are one of the two out of three headteachers who have suffered a stress-related illness.

As we begin the 21st century, the lack of a meaningful worklife balance is causing an increasing number of younger workers, even those under the age of 40, to suffer what is known as burnout syndrome.

Described as a state of mental and physical exhaustion, burnout syndrome is a phrase that has been used since the early 1970s. It is the consequence of long-term, mismanaged, emotionally stimulated physiological responses.

The emotional stimulus is created by the constant exposure and value attributed to work-related pressures, which then results in a chain of physiological responses (our internal alarm).

This well-designed mind-body survival system evolved over thousands of years in a predator-rich environment. However, the predators that stalked our ancestors, such as the big cats, are no longer an everyday threat but have been replaced by even more silent ones, such as excessive workload and poor worklife balance.

In education, depending on our role, our internal alarm is raised by many factors, including bureaucracy, struggling to meet frequent reporting and assessment deadlines, trying to prepare yet another dynamic, interactive lesson, pupil disruption and disrespect, feeling undervalued or worrying about the institution's finances and your livelihood and that of colleagues.

Symptoms can include fluctuations in mood, disturbed sleep patterns and difficulty in concentrating. Stress-related physical ailments can include migraine, musculoskeletal pain, skin and gastro-intestinal disorders.

Burnout does not happen overnight. If the symptoms endure for weeks, months or years without being understood or managed, it is like a virus of the psyche affecting biological, psychological and social health. Across all jobs and sectors, it may lead to the most committed workers becoming progressively detached, depressed and cynical.

Too often, the profile of those affected is that of a good, enthusiastic employee who has always accepted responsibility readily and who cares about their job, possibly even feeling that it is part of their identity.

Some of the responsibility for prevention lies with the individual. None of us can afford to abdicate responsibility for our health, and developing an understanding of the mind-body system is clearly important in bringing about changes in attitude and lifestyle that will reduce the undesirable effects of stress.

However, some responsibility lies with the employer. Government and education authorities need to recognise their duty of care and ensure that an employee's job matches their abilities, while institution-based line managers need to support staff effectively.

Teacher Support Cymru plans to conduct research on the effectiveness of support services and the impact of health and well-being among teachers.

It will be the first of its kind in Wales. The aim is to create a common understanding of health and stress reduction in the teaching profession.

Those heading towards burnout syndrome have to learn that there are no excuses for missing exercise and meals, and that job-related performance should not be to the detriment of a friend, partner or parent. Recognising the symptoms and seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it indicates a desire to become more effective and sustainable.

Preventive measures may include adequate sleep, healthy food, exercising and spending quality time in social situations with friends and family.

Yoga and hypnotherapy can help.

Ultimately, however, the best advice is that physical and mental health are at least as important as climbing the promotional ladder towards professional success.

Andy McCann is a former assistant head and now director of AMCAN Consultancy and Training

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