back-to-school burnout
© Volodymyr Tverdokhlib |

Here Dr Margot Sunderland – leading child psychologist and Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health – explores back-to-school burnout and provides teachers with advice on how stay fit and healthy

Reported cases of ‘burnout’ amongst European workforces increased so dramatically over 2018-2019 that the World Health Organization announced plans earlier this year to formally recognize the phenomenon. The latest International Classification of Diseases Manual classifies it as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is stress in its most extreme form, manifesting in symptoms such as:

  • Extreme levels of tiredness and low energy, no matter how much sleep you get
  • Sleep issues like insomnia or oversleeping
  • Deriving little or no pleasure in anything
  • Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed
  • Cognitive issues like struggling to think clearly or concentrate properly
  • Weakened immune system resulting in physical issues such as gastrointestinal problems, becoming more prone to infections, headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations and headaches
  • Mental health problems like anxiety, depression or anger.

From a neuroscience perspective, these periods of prolonged, uncomforted distress are known as toxic stress – and they have hugely detrimental impacts on the mind and body. Excess levels of stress hormones inhibit the release of important ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals like oxytocin, dopamine and our brain’s natural opioids.  As a result, our mood plummets and we become susceptible to severe psychological pain.

Burnout is rarely caused through workload alone, but rather the complex relational dynamics which lay in place behind the division of labour such as:

  • Difficult relationships with others
  • Painful exchanges with people
  • Too many or overly high expectations/demands, which leave you drained
  • Not feeling appreciated or valued
  • Feelings of paralysis and being unable to change things for the better.

Why are teachers particularly susceptible?

A recent study of 12,000 teachers conducted by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) found that school-based burnout was resulting in “spiraling levels of mental and physical ill health”. Many teachers feel undervalued by their employer, with nearly two thirds (64%) reporting that they felt their wellbeing was not considered important by the school. A staggering 93% of teachers believed they were failing to receive management in a way that meaningfully empowered them. Factors identified as causes of disempowerment included:

  • A culture of blame or criticism at the school
  • A lack of respect for teachers’ professional judgements
  • Unreasonable expectations and workloads
  • A lack of knowledge from senior decision makers about the nature of a teacher’s job
  • Feeling constantly under evaluation and judgement and lacking a voice or input

Another leading cause of disempowerment amongst teachers was a lack of support from colleagues. Large and disruptive classes can be stressful experiences for even the most experienced teachers; and this is compounded when the school fails to provide adequate learning support staff. Without an effective support system to help teachers deal with classroom disruption, feelings of hopelessness and isolation are almost inevitable.

Loneliness and isolation are some of the key indicators that a teacher is on their way to burnout, with recent research showing loneliness to be as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s not enough to supplement this lack of face-to-face communication with digital mediums like emails or texting, as these are classified by researchers as purely superficial and lacking in the necessary emotional depth needed to alleviate high levels of stress.

It comes as no surprise then that 84% of teachers reported they had lost sleep over issues at work. Anxiety (80%) and irritability/mood swings (61%) were also recorded. Nearly one in five (19%) of teachers experienced panic attacks.

So what can be done?

 The approach to tackling teacher burnout must be two-fold. It’s important that teachers themselves foster daily self-care techniques, but just as vital are interventions put in place by senior leads to ensure that no members of staff are left in states of toxic stress.

Practical self-care and stress management tips for teachers

  • Get to grips with the neurochemistry and physiology of stress, as well as identifying what reduces toxic stress (burnout) to tolerable stress. Find what supports the activation of well-being chemicals in your brain. “We can choose activities and pursuits that release the oxytocin stored in our own inner medical cabinet…We have this wonderful healing substance inside us and need only to learn the many ways we can draw upon it.” (Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, Neuroscientist.)
  • Don’t be fobbed off by inadequate de-stressors! Know that if you’re particularly distressed or upset, a quick chat and cup of coffee in the staff room is not enough to shift you out of a state of toxic stress. ‘Interventions’ like these show an igorance of the impact of burnout.
  • Medidate for 10 minutes a day. It’s clinically proven to alleviate stress. Be realistic about your practice, and be aware that in a mentally healthy school, senior leads will schedule meditation time into your timetable and provide you with a calming child-free, work-discussion free environment for this to take place.
  • See a counsellor or psychotherapist once a week: this has a dramatic impact on de-stressing. It’s important to visit a registered professional so you can be listened to and receive the best psychological guidance.
  • Get a massage every week and book in a regular slot so you don’t have to think about it. It’s proven to release and optimise the anxiety alleviating   neurochemical oxytocin.
  • Try to spend time in nature every day. If you live in an urban environment, try listening to bird song or other nature sounds instead. Green-space research studies prove dramatic reduction in stress hormones and have a calming effect on body and mind.
  • Find a form of exercise that can fit in around your lifestyle – the NHS recommends adults aged 19-64 do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. This could be as simple as walking to work every day.
  • Emotionally invest in relationships with like-minded colleagues at your school. Try to overcome shyness as social isolation is one of the worst stressors for our mental health.

How can the school environment and senior leads help to ensure that teachers don’t become burnt out?

As senior leads have a duty of care to the whole school community, it’s both unfair and unprofessional if they assume zero responsibility for managing stress levels and leave staff to de-stress in their own time. Possible ideas to implement include:

  • Regular ‘psychological hazards’ health checks on teachers, to put in place a system of valuing teachers and reducing shame and blame.
  • Talk-time groups for ‘lone’ teachers – as the police and fire services do – to ensure they have a safe space where they feel free to talk to colleagues about painful feelings which have been triggered by stressful interactions with pupils and staff.
  • CPD for Senior Leads on the physiology and brain science of toxic stress so they can learn about how to provide a supportive environment for staff.
  • Regular wellbeing sessions for all staff such as mindfulness, yoga, or Tai Chi.
  • A nurture room or sensory zone for staff – not a staff room, but a space that is both work and child free, to ensure staff have optimal levels of the anti- anxiety oxytocin released in their brains on a regular basis. Rooms like these don’t have to be expensive, as oxytocin is triggered by effectively with time spent in a room with:
  • Warm lights (uplighters)
  • Soothing colours
  • Sensory richness
  • Calming music
  • Lovely smells
  • Comforting fabric
  • External warmth heating the body (e.g. electric blankets)
  • Open fire DVD
  • Mindfulness


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