‘Teachers are not to blame for their own burnout’

Teacher burnout is caused by workplace demands rather than individual character flaws, writes Dr Helen Kelly

workload unmanageable in international schools

In 2020, I wrote an article that attracted much attention, The Myth of the Resilient Child. I drew on current scientific thinking, which suggests that, contrary to popular belief, children are not naturally resilient. Instead, they are particularly vulnerable to emotional and behavioural issues brought on by stress and trauma, which can significantly impact their lives into adulthood.

I argued that the myth of the resilient child has conveniently developed to help adults to avoid addressing the truth, that most childhood trauma is a consequence of adult behaviour, brought about by our own vulnerabilities and dysfunctions. I asked whether the focus on school-based resilience programmes may be unfairly placing the onus on children to build coping skills, when what students need most are secure attachments, developed through supportive and consistent relationships with adults.

In recent years, there has also been a growing focus on the need for educators to build resilience, to help them cope with the demands of their work and avoid occupational burnout. Is placing the onus on educators to be resilient just a convenient way for schools to abnegate their responsibility to provide a workplace that minimises the risk of burnout?

In our current work-obsessed culture, we consider work-related stress to be a problem of the individual. It is thought that people become overwhelmed with stress and burn out because of flaws in their character, their behaviour, or because they lack the resilience to cope with the demands of their work. Burnout, or overwhelm, is viewed as a failure on the part of the individual employee and the solution is for the individual to change. The recent proliferation in schools of resilience training, and initiatives to support workplace mental health, is a manifestation of this mindset.

“Is placing the onus on educators to be resilient just a convenient way for schools to abnegate their responsibility?”

While raising awareness around and supporting mental health is important, I would argue that these approaches fail to address the factors that are actually causing poor mental health and burnout.

A considerable body of research shows that, while personal characteristics and behaviours can be contributors to burnout, such factors are hugely overestimated.  It is instead workplace factors that play the greatest role in the development of occupational burnout. Foremost burnout researchers Maslach and Leiter have found that burnout occurs when there is a chronic imbalance between the demands of an individual’s job and their needs, in one or more of six areas – workload, control, rewards, community, fairness and values. Research in the field of educator burnout identifies workload and community as the two areas most associated with burnout in teachers and school leaders.

Workload refers not only to the amount of work but also to the emotional demands of the educator’s role. For teachers, the quantity of work is the most significant factor, whereas for leaders the emotional demands of adult relationships, particularly those with staff and parents, have the closest association with burnout.

“Supportive relationships mitigate against other factors that contribute to burnout.

The quality of Community has a double impact on employee burnout. Firstly, supportive relationships mitigate against other factors that contribute to burnout, offering a protective effect. Secondly, workplace loneliness, or a lack of a sense of belonging, can make an individual more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed. This is a significant factor in the burnout of both teachers and school leaders, with the quality of adult relationships in school playing a key role in both vulnerability to burnout and coping.

In my 2021 report International School Teacher Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Pandemic, only a third of teachers said they felt supported by their school, two-thirds said they had felt lonely during the pandemic and only 20 per cent said the workplace culture at their school had a positive impact on their wellbeing.

So, the upshot is that educators are particularly vulnerable to burnout when their workload and the emotional demands of the role become more than they can sustain and when there is an absence of supportive adult relationships in their school. These issues are not problems of the individual but are organisational issues. It is a school’s policies and practices that determine an educator’s workload, and it is the culture of the school that determines whether teachers and leaders feel supported.

“Organisational factors have the biggest impact on determining whether a teacher or leader can sustain their role. “

Educator burnout is primarily shaped by the organisational systems, structures, characteristics, and culture of the school. These factors either compound or reduce the physical and emotional burden of an educator’s work and determine the level of support they receive. Ultimately, it is these organisational factors that will have the biggest impact on determining whether a teacher or leader can sustain their role or will instead burn out.

If school factors are primarily responsible for teacher and leader burnout, then change at the organisational level is needed to address this. Initiatives that seek to improve wellbeing at an individual level, such as resilience and stress management training programmes, will essentially fail to get to the real issues. These interventions are popular because they are inexpensive and easy to implement and require very little commitment from the school. In truth, however, regardless of how cheap they are, they are likely to yield a poor return on investment, because they fail to tackle the organisational factors that are the real problem.

In schools around the world, too little is being done to bring about effective change at the organisational level in schools. Meaningful interventions that will bring lasting improvement to educator wellbeing need to focus on enhancing working conditions and building positive workplace cultures. Interventions of this kind, while more complex and expensive to implement, are the only way to effectively address the incidence of overwhelm and burnout sweeping through the profession.

“Students taught by teachers showing signs of burnout were more likely to exhibit disruptive behaviours.”

There is a growing body of evidence to show that burnout among teachers and school leaders has a significant effect on their job performance. In my 2021 report, 45 per cent of teachers said that stress was impacting their ability to do their job well.  A 2020 meta-study, by York University, of 5,000 teachers and 50,000 students, also found a strong association between teacher burnout and student behaviour and outcomes. Students taught by teachers showing signs of burnout were more likely to exhibit disruptive behaviours and reduced motivation as well as perform less well on assessments than other students.

Educator burnout is, therefore, impacting the core purpose of the school and reducing its effectiveness. It is essential that schools move away from the myth of the resilient educator and move towards addressing workload and improving school community.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.