Understanding and Addressing Teacher Burnout
In this multi-part series on burnout in teachers, you’ll learn the causes, symptoms, and solutions for reducing Burnout Syndrome among educators.
In today’s post, you’ll learn what teacher burnout is as well as the dimensions of Burnout Syndrome. In part two next month, you’ll learn about the effects of burnout — and what causes it in educators.
In February of 2022, the National Education Association — the nation’s largest union representing nearly three million educators — released a survey of members’ opinions on key issues facing public education during the pandemic and its current impact on teacher well-being.
The survey illuminated many issues impacting our educators, but perhaps the most stunning finding was that 90% of teachers across the U.S. reported being “seriously” burned out, with 67% reporting being “very seriously” burned out.
Burnout is a severe problem affecting professionals in many occupational groups, and K-12 education is not immune to the problem.
Burnout and the impacts of professional burnout and stress are so serious that an alarming 55% of educators now indicate they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.
Work-related stress and burnout for educators is one of the most powerful causes of low job performance, absenteeism, and attrition (Martínez 2015; Seth 2016; Skaalvik and Skaalvik 2017).
Burnout has a variety of impacts for workers:
- Physical illness
- Increased feelings of hopelessness
- Irritability and impatience
- Poor interpersonal relationships with family, friends, and coworkers
In its severe stages, burnout can cause diminished executive functioning, attention, and memory.
The impact of burnout can be felt throughout an organization by increased absenteeism, increased turnover, and decreased job performance. Employee burnout should be measured and tracked for severity and cause, then addressed by an array of programs, interventions, and organizational change.
In this article, we will examine the genesis of educator burnout, the psychological and organizational factors that lead to burnout, and evidence-based solutions to address educator burnout.
What is Burnout?
In the popular media and employment circles, the term “job burnout” is seemingly ubiquitous, and there are many surveys and polls examining this construct.
In 1974, Freudenberger first described the phenomena of “Burnout Syndrome” (BOS) and defined it as a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by a combination of very high expectations and persistent situational stress (Freudenberger, 1974).
Burnout Syndrome can occur in people who do not have prior issues with mental health, and it involves a constellation of symptoms across numerous domains. BOS typically occurs in the workplace, and its genesis is believed to be caused by a gap between the ideals, goals, and expectations of the employee — and what one actually experiences in their everyday work.
Generally speaking, BOS begins when people start to feel stress on the job. This stress can be related to, for example, having too many tasks to complete in a short time frame.
The stress that one experiences under these conditions on the job can lead to a variety of negative effects:
- A general sense of disillusionment in the work.
- Feeling (and perhaps displaying) negative attitudes toward one’s job, bosses, and coworkers.
- Generally becoming less adaptable to one’s environment.
- Feelings of frustration, anger, fear, or anxiety.
- An inability to feel happiness, joy, pleasure, or contentment.
Educators experiencing Burnout Syndrome may have trouble caring for and about their peers and students. They may even blame them for their negative feelings, and this can lead to strained interpersonal relationships.
Burnout Syndrome can be associated with physical symptoms, including insomnia, muscle tension, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.
Another notable feature of BOS is that people begin to have significant self doubts about their competence and ability to do their job. This decline in professional efficacy further reinforces all of the aforementioned symptoms and an overall decline in general mental health.
In another conceptualization of Burnout Syndrome, Leiter (1993) suggested that burnout has its genesis with emotional exhaustion, which in turn contributes to increased cynicism.
The emotional exhaustion emanates from work stressors as employees continuously face insurmountable job demands (e.g., work pressure, high emotional demands). Subsequently, employees may develop a cynical attitude toward the job as a method of coping with the stress and to distance themselves from the stress (Naus et al., 2007; Taris et al., 2005).
Cynicism is seen as a mediator between work stressors and the behaviors of employees. Professional efficacy declines in parallel with emotional exhaustion as work stressors continue (Blaga, L. & Todericiu, R., 2016).
Dr. Andrew Miki, a noted clinical psychologist and expert on educator burnout, indicates that one of the problems with defining Burnout Syndrome is it is not an official diagnosable condition, and there is not an “official” commonly accepted definition.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2019 articulated that burnout syndrome presents an array of symptoms and clinical features that overlap extensively with depression.
These overlapping symptoms include:
- Loss of energy
- Loss of enjoyment in life
- Reduced productivity
Dr. Miki likens the loss of energy and motivation noted in BOS to a battery being depleted of its power. Without the proper levels of energy, general mental health deteriorates, and mental health conditions — such as depression or anxiety — may develop.
Indeed, the JAMA article makes the point that medical professionals will gravitate toward BOS because it seems more socially acceptable than a clinical diagnosis of depression. However, this could lead to people not receiving the appropriate treatment.
The evidence is mounting that burned out individuals have been found to report as many depressive symptoms as clinically depressed patients, underlining the qualitative and quantitative overlap of the two entities (Bianchi R., Schonfeld IS, Laurent E., 2015).
Dimensions of Burnout Syndrome
As noted above, typically there are three Burnout Syndrome dimensions mentioned in the literature: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., & Leiter, M.P.,1996).
Of note, however, is that the basic structure of burnout as a three-dimensional syndrome has been seriously questioned in the last decade (Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E., 2015).
1. Emotional Exhaustion
Emotional exhaustion is characterized by a general lack of energy and emotional resources with which to cope with work demands.
Fatigue develops particularly when one must devote excessive effort on tasks not perceived to be important or beneficial.
For example, a teacher may develop a feeling of emotional exhaustion when they must spend a great deal of time completing forms or paperwork they view as unimportant.
Depersonalization, or dehumanization, is characterized by an absence of empathy with other people. A person experiencing Burnout Syndrome will have a distant or indifferent attitude toward work.
For teachers, this can manifest in blaming the student for one’s troubles and not caring about their improvement.
The connection between student engagement and the student–teacher relationship has been extensively studied and is significant. If a teacher does not show a caring attitude toward their students, engagement will decline with associated impacts on achievement (Hagenauer, Hascher, & Volet, 2015).
If teachers are distant and uncaring through the depersonalization process, there will undoubtedly be negative impacts on the teacher–student relationship. A meta-analysis by Jamal et al. (2013) found positive relationships between teachers and students and an overall feeling of safety are essential for student well-being within schools.
3. Reduced Professional Efficacy
The final classic dimension of Burnout Syndrome is reduced professional efficacy.
People with BOS feel incompetent at their job, have low self-esteem, and tend to negatively evaluate the worth of their work. When one has a low sense of self or professional efficacy, it can greatly impact one’s motivation (Bandura, 1978).
As part of the cognitive structure of each person, self-efficacy affects one’s aspirations, efforts, endurance, resistance to failures, and the level of experiencing stress.
John Hattie’s extensive meta-analyses confirm the strong connection between a teacher’s self-efficacy and student achievement, with an average effect size of 0.92, and reflects one of the top 10 factors impacting student achievement (Hattie, 2015).
Additional Notes on Burnout Syndrome
If we accept the notion that BOS is comorbid with depression, we also see that people will be generally less resilient and unable to bounce back from failure or obstacles.
Low levels of resilience — and associated low energy levels — may manifest in a defeatist attitude, and low resilience can be considered as part of the overall presentation of Burnout Syndrome.
Cynicism as a Dimension
Related to depersonalization is another aspect of Burnout Syndrome that may develop in educators: a general sense of cynicism. However, as a dimension of BOS, Simbula & Guglielmi (2010) found that cynicism is distinct from depersonalization.
People with Burnout Syndrome may be seen as negative and cynical by their peers.
An educator experiencing cynicism may interact impersonally — and, at times, unprofessionally — with colleagues. They will derive little joy from the work and will have a difficult time seeing the humorous side of things.
Cynicism may be seen behaviorally in a mocking attitude, one where an educator makes fun of their leaders, refuses to participate in new initiatives, or is generally negative to school improvement efforts.
According to Andersson (1996), cynicism is associated with a series of negative elements:
- Apathy, resignation, or lack of hope
- Lack of trust in others or suspicion
- Disillusionment or low performances
- Interpersonal conflicts
Ultimately, cynicism manifests as a form of self-defense on the part of the employees — as a way of facing difficult or disappointing events (Reichers et al., 1997).
Andersson, L. M. “Employee Cynicism: An Examination Using a Contract Violation Framework.” Human Relations, vol. 49, no. 11, 1996.
Bandura, A. “Reflections on Self-Efficacy.” Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 1, no. 4, 1978, pp. 237–269.
Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E. “Burnout-Depression Overlap: A Review.” Clinical Psychology Review, 2015.
Blaga, L. & Todericiu, R. “Change, Resistance to Change and Organizational Cynicism.” Studies in Business and Economics, vol. 11, no. 3, 2016.
Freudenberger, J. “Staff Burn-Out.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 30, no. 1, 1974, pp. 159–165.
Hagenauer, G., Hascher, T. & Volet, S.E. “Teacher Emotions in the Classroom: Associations with Students’ Engagement, Classroom Discipline and the Interpersonal Teacher-Student Relationship.” European Journal of Psychology of Education, vol. 30, 2015, pp. 385–403.
Hattie, J. Visible Learning, 2nd edition. Rutledge Press, 2015.
Jamal, F., Fletcher, A., Harden, A., Wells, H., Thomas, J., Bonell, C. “The School Environment and Student Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Ethnography of Qualitative Research.” BMC Public Health, vol. 13, no. 1, 2013, p. 798.
Martínez, J. P. “Cómo se defende el profesorado de secundaria del estrés: burnout y estrategias de afrontamiento (How secondary school teachers protect themselves from stress: Burnout and coping strategies).” Revista de Psicología del Trabajo y de las Organizaciones, vol. 31, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–9. (Translated)
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. & Leiter, M. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology, 2001, pp. 397–422.
Reichers, A. E., Wanous, J. P., & Austin, J. T. “Understanding and Managing Cynicism About Organizational Change.” Academy of Management Executive, vol. 11, no. 1, 1997.
Simbula, S., Guglielmi, D. “Depersonalization or Cynicism, Efficacy or Inefficacy: What Are the Dimensions of Teacher Burnout?” European Journal of Psychology of Education, vol. 25, 2010, pp. 301–314.
Skaalvik, E. M., & Skaalvik, S. “Still Motivated to Teach? A Study of School Context Variables, Stress and Job Satisfaction Among Teachers in Senior High School.” Social Psychology of Education, vol. 20, no. 1, 2017, pp. 15–37.
You May Also Like
These Related Stories
No Comments Yet
Let us know what you think