Frances Robertson offers some practical ideas for improving wellbeing and reducing teacher burnout.
Taking positive steps to reduce teacher burnout
As a school leader, how do you take care of yourself and your teachers? Frances Robertson urges you to avoid burn-out for yourself and your teachers by reviewing your structures and practices and making time to reflect and step back from the chaos…
As a school leader, you will be committed and dedicated to your school, its staff and students. You are driven to do the very best you can. You will expend energy and put in hours above and beyond the call of duty. Similarly, your teachers will too. The Global Recruitment Agency HAY’s says that 70% of teaching professionals feel drained after work, with 62% feeling stressed at work and 20% of new class teachers leaving the profession within two years. Teacher stress within the teaching profession is certainly increasing. This does not make for pleasant reading nor is it good news for your school and the children within it and neither is it good news for the teaching profession.
Traditionally, burn-out may not be a term associated with education. However, sadly, this is changing. High workload has become so readily accepted and how little we have slept or how late we have worked sometimes becomes a badge of honour, linked to how successful we are or at least perceived to be.
What is teacher burnout?
Burnout, put simply, is a feeling of total exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. Burnout in teachers occurs when the demands outweigh the resources available to cope with the demands. It impacts on both body and brain causing a crisis in the sense of your professional competency.
It is often not recognised or at least not spotted early enough for any intervention or “time out” to be implemented. When having a bad day becomes a bad week which becomes a bad month or term then you may be approaching “burn-out”. The impact of leadership and teaching during Covid may have exacerbated some of the above and indeed created more turbulence in your already busy and stressful lives. Mental health concerns have become increasingly prevalent due to the increased teaching demands of our educators. The impact on student outcomes of having a different supply teacher each week should also not be overlooked. Burnout among teachers has become a very important issue and in this article, we will explore some practical steps to prevent teacher attrition.
How do you recognise teacher burnout? What are the signs of burnout?
Things to look out for in yourself and your staff include the following:
- Have you or one of your teachers experienced an increase in tiredness; or feeling more drained?
- Are you or one of your teachers feeling that work is more stressful and frustrating than normal?
- Have you or one of your teachers become more cynical about work? Or more detached, including about life outside of work?
- Are you or one of your teachers having difficulty concentrating or feeling that you lack that extra push or creative flair?
- Are you or one of your teachers increasingly restless and yet keep yourself constantly busy, finding it difficult to switch off – and then waking up at 2am recalling things and thinking of things you need to do?
- Are you or one of your teachers too busy to lunch?
- Are you or one of your teachers experiencing any physical effects such as breathlessness or heart palpitations? Do you or one of your teachers have the Sunday night dread?
- Are you or one of your teachers thinking of leaving the career you loved?
Then you may be suffering from “burn-out”, a term coined by Herbert Freudenberfer in his 1974 book Burnout: The high cost of high achievement.
Critically, burn-out is not inevitable. Just because you are in a high-stress role, and this includes all teachers as well as senior leaders, does not mean you will or have to experience burn-out.
It is all about how well you are managing that stress and how well supported you feel within your school. And the good news is that it is not a permanent state. It is about taking steps to change your work environment (the structures and practices in place), your constructs towards it and developing strategies that help you manage your stress. Steps towards minimising mental health issues are possible.
What factors contribute to teacher burnout?
We agree that as school leaders you face a plethora of challenges and demands on a regular basis and will consistently work long hours.
The pressures you face are among the most complex in any public sector leadership role. I am sure you will recognise many of the demands in the list below. I have grouped them into differing demands but, they do not always fit neatly into one box. You may want to mark those that provide stress for you. How many have you marked?
Anticipation of Things to Come
· Changes in legislation
· Future national initiatives
· Future budgetary threats
· Difficult meetings where tensions may arise
· Work overload challenges
· Time management pressures
· Realistic prioritising whilst leading through unexpected events
· Leading change
· The non-anticipatable situations that require reactive leadership
· Premises issues
· Budget management
· Pupil/parent issues
· Safeguarding situations
· Staff Recruitment and Retention
· Personnel disputes
· Conflicting leadership demands
· Differing expectations of a plethora of stakeholders
· Counteracting wariness of change
· Having to use leadership styles/skills that fall outside preferred ways of working
Similarly, your teachers face complex and at times conflicting demands. I am sure they too could draw up a table like this. In fact, it may be an interesting task to carry out with your team. It is this constant demand that can cause teacher stress and mental health issues.
So, without trying to load you as a leader any more than you currently are, I would suggest that ensuring the culture, structure and practices within your school are effective enough to retain the quality teachers, keeping teacher turnover low is essential. Ensuring that you and your teachers are able to maintain good mental health is crucial and beneficial for all.
What can school leaders do to reduce teacher burnout?
I would suggest that it requires a review of practices and procedures within your school. For example, are all the meetings really required? Can they be carried out in different ways? Do they finish when all has been covered or do, they only finish at the finish time? Is there an agreed absolute maximum time for finishing?
Finding out job satisfaction levels is needed. It is worth spending time with teachers finding out what paperwork takes most time and discussing openly and candidly how much of this is necessary to achieve your main goals. Allow true space for all to be genuine in their feedback. Consider what the true role of teachers is . The paperwork that is necessary and there absolutely will be some, consider whether you have allocated time for this. Can this be organised?
Conversations about boundaries with regard to emails is critical too. Have time boundaries on these. Ensure all staff know how to send emails using “schedule send” so that others do not receive them in their social times.
In reality, it means having a culture that encourages this openness. A culture that encourages teachers to be involved in decision making and deciding upon accountability measures may well reduce the accountability pressures upon you. Teachers then understand the “why” underpinning the need and importantly feel involved and in control. Having a sense of autonomy and control is a major alleviator to experiencing teacher stress.
As a leader, you set the tone for looking after your own wellbeing as well as your physical health and mental health. Consider whether this is being modelled. In truth, what works for you regarding this will equally work for your teachers.
So, my question to you is what do you do to ensure that you can manage and still retain good physical health and mental health and wellbeing for yourself? Remember that if you are not in a good place this has an impact on your family and friends, your team around you and other leaders in the building. In other words, it impacts your classroom teachers too.
In the longer term, the stressors talked about earlier can have a detrimental impact on your physical health. Some or all of these stressors may be symptoms and signs of burnout and maybe experienced while you are still carrying out your role to a very high standard. You may well be hardworking, actively performing well under pressure and yet experiencing burnout. This is also true for your classroom teachers.
This is where the reflection time becomes critical. I would encourage you to allow time and space for this within your school. Ensure teachers have space to simply be - perhaps some meetings can be “think time” for teachers. It is one way of attempting to reduce the risk of teacher burnout.
As a school leader, you too need to take time to reflect on your day, reflect on your successes and what has gone well. It is so easy to only think about the challenges and problems and the potential feelings of ineffectiveness.
I can recall reviewing end of year data with a fellow headteacher. I found myself concentrating on the “weaker” areas and discussing how we could move this forward and my colleague simply said: “Don’t forget to eat the cake!” (I might add that overall the data was very good).
They were so right. In our quest to achieve the very best we can for each and every young person we can forget to celebrate the successes. We are constantly looking for improvements. This can be exhausting both for you as a leader and for your teachers.
School staff need to take a break to prevent teacher burnout
Ensuring you actually take a break during the day is vital. Actually book time in your “diary” every day which is your break time. Ideally leave the building and go on a walk for at least 30 minutes. When you are so busy and you think you cannot fit this into the day this is exactly when you must do this.
That space away allows you time to distance yourself and you may also be amazed how solutions seem to simply come to you when doing this.
Keeping a reflection journal is a cathartic process and allows you to think through and record your personal thoughts, opinions and experiences. It allows you to notice any changes in your body, mind emotions or behaviour. This then allows you to seek out support early on if required. If the idea of a reflection journal scares you, try recording your impact in a log instead. Record all the things that have gone well and the differences you have made.
The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter recently published by the Department of Education states: “We are united in our view that improved wellbeing among education staff is a key outcome for education policy.”
It specifically mentions Ofsted’s pledge to check that leaders’ wellbeing is being protected: “This should include access to confidential counselling and/or coaching where needed.”
Ensure that you have regular protected time for facilitated and in-depth reflection. Similarly for your teachers consider whether their PPA time is in chunks of time large enough to be meaningful.
Final words on teacher wellbeing
As a leader, this reflection time may be through coaching or reflective leadership supervision. It is an opportunity to have time with another professional that allows you to offer an account of your work, reflect upon it and effectively receive personal CPD. This can then be offered to your teachers from leaders within the school. It might be called “check-in times” or "mental health days" and although not part of the performance management process directly however will be critical at picking up concerns throughout the year.
It is in other words a safe place to acknowledge concerns, stressors and successes without any fear or worry of a report being written which will be submitted to other leaders, governors or a school improvement partner.
Ideally, these meetings should occur regularly however the main thing is that they are timed to fit around those pressure points – for some individuals this may be at the end of each half-term when they can off-load their concerns, reflect on what has happened, and the way forward, and then really enjoy their holiday. For others, these meetings may happen throughout the term.
They should though enable you to resource and sustain yourself as well as support the maintenance of a healthy work-life balance. They will allow you to also feel less isolated.
Being a headteacher or a senior school leader or class teacher does not mean that you deserve less care and attention than is dedicated to the young people in your school. You must put your oxygen mask on first to protect those around you. The consequences of not doing this can destroy your ambition, idealism, and sense of self-worth. This in turn may lead to you abandoning your career and that is a massive shame. Schools need good people. Consider what changes you can make to the school structures and practices. Make reflection time part of the culture of your school. Seek support before you are sinking. Remember that “in the midst of difficulty lies opportunity”. – Albert Einstein
Frances Robertson, having recently retired from headship, offers confidential support for teachers, school leaders and headteachers to ensure wellbeing and professional development through reflective supervision and coaching as well as offering educational consultancy support. Visit www.headsconnect.co.uk
Further information and resources
- DfE: Guidance: Education staff wellbeing charter , May 2021: gov.uk/guidance/education-staff-wellbeing-charter
- Education Support: For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact the free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or educationsupport.org.uk
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