I have read a lot recently about teachers in FE feeling fatigued, frustrated by the large volumes of marking and increasingly stressed. It is clear that work in the education sector is highly demanding. But in any industry, any individual who experiences physical, emotional or mental exhaustion – and perceives that they cannot cope with the demands placed on them – is susceptible to burnout. This can lead to disengagement and ultimately withdrawal from their role.
An understanding of the causes of burnout and strategies for prevention, even when the demands of the job remain constant, may go some way to supporting teaching staff to reprioritise their personal wellbeing.
My interest and experience of this topic started with my undergraduate thesis, which examined athlete burnout and coach-athlete relationships. I was testing the hypothesis that the quality of those relationship could influence the athlete’s susceptibility to burnout or, in other words, whether poor relationships might result in overtraining by the athlete, thereby increasing their likelihood of experiencing aspects of burnout. After examining quantitative and qualitative data, it became clear that I could accept the hypothesis, but as an applied practitioner, I wanted to learn how to better support athletes to prevent burnout.
What became clear was that changing the coaches’ behaviour was out of my remit, so I had to support the athletes to develop their own strategies irrespective of the coach and environment.
During my years of working with athletes, I have always sought to transfer good practice into my teaching and education management roles. High performance, whether in sport or education, is underpinned by similar characteristics: confidence, motivation, resilience and the ability to perform under pressure. Developing personal resilience and wellbeing – despite the working environment remaining the same – is critical: sometimes it is not realistic to influence wholesale change and instead we need to change the lens through which we view situations in a way that prioritises personal wellbeing.
Here are five tips to avoid burnout.
1. Avoid ‘office presenteeism’
Have you ever frowned at a colleague because they left at a certain time? Or felt guilty walking out of the office, even when you have worked your hours and finished your daily tasks? Both are cases of “office presenteeism”, which can result in long hours being worked, but inefficiently. Be confident in focusing on your own tasks and performance, and take pride in the knowledge that if you have worked efficiently, you are leaving because you are done.
2. Take purposeful breaks
It is important to have breaks that involve completely switching off to recharge your mental batteries. It is also wise not to leave marking or small jobs “hanging” until the end of the holiday, as they can play on your mind throughout your break.
3. Make time for exercise
“Those who do not find time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” The famous quote, attributed to the Earl of Derby in 1873, has never rung more true than it does today. Physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the world, accounting for more than 3.2 million deaths per year. Exercise can improve health and energy levels, and promote personal resilience through challenge.
4. Set ‘process goals’ for workload
In education and sport, it is common to set outcome goals that are results focused to drive our motivation. Process goals are about the actions we must engage in to achieve the desired outcome. They can help to “chunk” workload to drive efficient behaviours and improve focus.
5. Safeguard your own wellbeing
If you feel overwhelmed, do not be afraid to ask for help or support. Being able to recognise what is normal for you, in terms of reactions to stressful situations, is critical because we all respond differently to stressors. Throughout an academic year, staff may experience a range of life issues such as bereavement that they may try to separate from work, but which they will at times need support with.
Support for peers can be invaluable when building wellbeing across the organisation. Staff in FE spend a huge amount of time teaching and supporting others, in a way similar to the helping professions, such as medical and social work, which can also experience high levels of burnout. The requirement to mark large volumes of work is not about to disappear, and our students will continue to need our help and support, whether face to face or digitally. So prioritising approaches to improving our personal resilience and wellbeing will be critical to ensuring we continue to be able to support them and change their lives.
Jo Maher is principal of Boston College