Wellbeing: how to avoid teacher burnout

By this time of year, teachers may be starting to feel close to burnout. Gemma Corby looks at the science of exhaustion

Gemma Corby

Teacher wellbeing: What are the causes of exhaustion and how can we combat it?

Most teachers describe themselves as being exhausted sometimes, but do you know the technical definition of the term?

There are two types of exhaustion: physical and mental, and – unsurprisingly – they are linked.

Physical exhaustion can present in the form of aching muscles, dizziness, frequent colds, heart palpitations and an elevated resting heart rate.

Quick read: Five signs that you're close to teacher burnout

Quick listen: The truth about mental health in schools

Want to know more? We must trust teachers’ instincts

This is not an exhaustive (no pun intended) list, however, and different people present in different ways.

Causes can include overactivity, undereating, poor-quality sleep, overconsumption of stimulants (such as caffeine and refined sugars) and dehydration. There are also some medical conditions that can lead to exhaustion, such as anaemia, diabetes and coeliac disease. Physical fatigue can also be triggered by exposure to long periods of stress.  

Those suffering from mental exhaustion, meanwhile, may experience symptoms including high levels of anxiety, lack of motivation (even for things they usually enjoy), irritability, apathy, “brain fog” and decreased productivity.

This could be the result of exposure to multiple, long-term stressors, such as prolonged cognitive activity (where you feel that your brain is in “overdrive”), feeling overwhelmed, decision-making, clutter, overcommitting yourself, perfectionism and (ironically) procrastination. 

Teacher wellbeing: What can I do?

Identify the key stressor(s) and remove or reduce them. This may be easier said than done; teacher workloads are notoriously large, but schools are generally supportive places, and nobody wants to see a colleague struggling. 

Speak to others and seek the help that you need, before you end up seriously ill and off for a long period. 

You could also:

  • Seek medical advice, particularly if you suspect you have an underlying medical condition such as hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) or diabetes. 

  • Speak to your GP for referrals to relevant professionals. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has helped many people manage their anxieties or tendencies towards perfectionism.

  • Make yourself a priority. Try swapping the word “time” for “priority”. You may say, “I don’t have enough time to see my friends”, but would you say “Seeing my friends is not a priority”? Think carefully about what your priorities are, and put your wellbeing at the top of the list.  

  • Consider your sleep patterns. Do you get your full quota of shut-eye, but still wake up feeling tired? If so, you may be getting poor-quality sleep. Stress, hormonal fluctuations, thyroid and adrenal issues can all be responsible for depriving us of good quality rest. Sufferers of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and/or upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) rarely experience deep sleep; with their brain keeping them in a state of arousal so they can continue breathing. Visit your GP if you are concerned about the quality of your sleep.

  • Declutter. Marie Kondo may have made decluttering trendy, but it is also good for your mental wellbeing, as clutter can elevate your cortisol levels (the stress hormone).

  • Say no. It’s all well and good being a keen bean but avoid overcommitting yourself. Know your limits and respect them; it’s better that way around than getting stressed out and having to back out of things.

  • Avoid procrastinating. Stacks of unmarked books haunt teachers. The anxiety caused by not doing something depletes our mental energy, leaving us fatigued.

As teachers, we are used to putting others before ourselves, but we all need to take heed of what our bodies are trying to tell us; before we find ourselves unable to do our job to the best of our ability, or at all. 

Gemma Corby is a former special educational needs and disability coordinator (Sendco) and freelance writer

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Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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