The term ‘burnout’, as applied to the workplace, began to be regularly used as early as the 1970s, to describe a series of behaviours observed in social workers in New York at that time.
It’s a phenomenon that has been well researched since then, predominantly investigating the emotional impact of working in highly fraught industries including medicine, psychology, counselling, law enforcement and education.
Much of what we know and understand about burnout, especially teacher burnout, comes from the work of Christina Maslach and her colleagues, who have studied its mechanisms for more than 40 years, and whose theories have been, and continue to be the foundation of subsequent research into the topic.
Defined as the process of collapse attributed to excessive and continuous demands on energy, strength and other physical, psychological and emotional resources, burnout develops across time and can be viewed through a lens of ever reducing levels of passion and compassion, self-efficacy and effectiveness.
From her extensive work, Maslach identified three elements via her Burnout Inventory, that describe not only the general symptomology of burnout but also its impact on our ability to be effective in our roles.
These three elements can be viewed as both symptoms, and consequences, of burnout, and include emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal accomplishment. According to the inventory, scoring high on the first two elements and low on the third, is indicative of burnout.
Emotional exhaustion is the most easily understood and recognised of the three elements and refers to the depletion or draining of our emotional resources such that we begin to suffer physical and psychological symptoms including low energy levels, depression, anxiety, headaches, cardiovascular illness, insomnia, impatience, ill-temper and the like.
It is a state that occurs over time and is argued to be mediated by individual levels of resilience and habitual coping mechanisms. It is perhaps the element that most clearly combines both physical and psychological consequences of the kind of pressures and demands that caring professions require.
The element of depersonalisation, however, can be misunderstood and is often confused with the psychological term that refers to a break with self. In burnout, this break is not with self but with those we serve, students and their families.
Through the process of depersonalisation, we become negative, callous, cynical, sarcastic and even hostile, perpetuating a gap between ourselves and our students as a kind of self-protective mechanism.
This trait is most often manifested by a loss of connection/relationships, a loss of concern and interest and a sense of blame and highly critical judgement toward students and their carers.
The third element is that of a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment and a reduction in self-efficacy.
Indeed, when we feel as though we cannot achieve our objectives, when we feel as though the hurdles have become too high to jump we can lose confidence in our ability to teach effectively, to control a classroom or to deliver the curriculum in an engaging and efficient way.
This element is directly linked to our sense of identity as teachers, our whole reason for becoming an educator, our passion, drive and desire to make a difference. It is perhaps the one element that, once triggered, can have devastating impacts on our sense of self-worth.
While theories of burnout and our understanding of it have evolved with the construction of a substantial body of research, it is becoming clear that at the heart of burnout is expectation.
Researcher, Peter Brill noted that burnout is “expectationally mediated, job-related, dysphoric and dysfunctional” and that it occurs in those who have functioned very well in their profession for a period of time.
Perhaps one of the most easily illustrated expectations that is compromised early is that of the classroom itself.
Clearly the reality of the teaching life is a shock to many when they first enter the profession.
Despite the cultural dismay and scorn at the hours teachers keep, the reality is that teachers rarely switch off. Before and after school is usually about preparation and concern – concern for those students who are falling behind or are high achievers, have emotional or behavioural issues, or come from backgrounds that worry us in terms of student safety and wellbeing.
Concern also for our ability to manage the classroom, deliver results, engage all our students and inspire in them a desire to achieve their best.
School holidays are usually a time for thinking about the term/year ahead, what can we do better? What can we take from the term/year before?
It is a time of research and searching for new ideas, resources and inspiration, a time for trying to reboot with so much on the mind.
It’s a time of self-criticism – judging our performance and our results, of justifying to others our long ‘Christmas’ break and trying to reconnect with why we’re teaching at all.
There are also expectations about the roles and responsibilities of those around us and the support they should/could provide. Expectations about workload, internal school policy and protection, interactions with families and colleagues, expectations about our profession and our hopes for what we can achieve and expectations about who our students are and how they should behave, think, feel and succeed.
When these expectations are not met, we can begin to fall into despair, exhaustion, frustration, anger, hopelessness.
We begin to experience disillusionment that manifests itself in emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a lowered sense of accomplishment.
Over time, these experiences of expectations not met, destroy our passion, our enthusiasm and our care for teaching and learning and we either reduce ourselves to simply going through the motions or we leave the profession completely.
Either way, education is diminished and students are left damaged and unfulfilled - both socially and academically.
Indeed, research indicates that an ineffective teacher has a negative impact on students not only in the year they are in that teachers class, but across future years as well.
As such, understanding what leads to burnout and how we can reduce its impact is key to a healthy and successful education system.
While research suggests that the elements of burnout work together, interact with each other, and feed off each other to create the burnout effect, managing one would not seem to necessarily alleviate the others.
What research, including my own, has indicated however, is that some external and internal factors can, when introduced and emphasised, minimise the impact of burnout by providing individuals with the support and tools they need to reinvigorate themselves and their professional passion.
For example, the external factor of collegial support has been found to be significant in protecting teachers against the worst effects of burnout, as are internal factors including grit, resilience, developing more realistic expectations and self-awareness.
As mentioned, these elements can be developed and taught and, ideally, should be highlighted in teacher training and professional development programs.
Setting teachers up for success in more than curriculum knowledge should be the core component of our education system.
Delivery, after all, is only one part of the teaching and learning mechanism.
Healthy, fulfilled teachers who inspire curiosity, independence, critical thinking and achievement, who can create and maintain bonds with all of the students in their care, are far more effective than those who simply ‘know their stuff’.