Preventing teacher burnout is no longer a concern for many school employers …
… whose expectations and 'non-negotiable' demands have created a mental health crisis in schools and education systems worldwide.
Increasingly, teaching staff are treated as disposable parts of the system. When we 'wear out', we are replaced.
As a result, rates of burnout in the teaching profession are rising across the world:
- In the USA, "new teachers leave at rates of somewhere between 19 percent and 30 percent over their first five years of teaching".
- In the UK, almost 40,000 teachers quit the profession each year, representing about 9% of the workforce.
- Across the world, many teachers cite the impact that working in the modern classroom has on their health, as their biggest reason to go.
In this post, I want to help educators recognise the early warning signs important in preventing teacher burnout ...
... and avoid developing a mental health problem.
Because by being aware of the big picture, you can better protect your long-term health.
What is Teacher Burnout?
Teacher Burnout is best described as a significant deterioration in the mental health of teaching staff.
Burnout can affect a teachers' ability to work in the classroom - but also their ability to live a 'normal' life outside school.
Ultimately, for many educators, suffering burnout means years of mental health recovery - and for many, long term symptoms of depression, anxiety and low self esteem.
Sadly, many teachers never truly recover.
Why Do So Many Teachers Suffer Burnout?
The causes of high rates of burnout in the teaching profession go well beyond increases in workload.
The working conditions many teachers now experience, are a toxic cocktail of unrealistic expectations and accountability ...
... in an environment where our opinions and professional judgement are neither valued or desired.
Many teachers remark that however hard they work - it is never enough.
And those who choose to speak out about the difficulties they are having, often discover that their jobs are at risk for doing so.
As a result, many teachers manage impossible levels of workload and overwhelmingly critical management ... in enforced silence.
Most educators I know can’t imagine working like this until retirement age.
What many don’t realise however, is that working unsustainably has consequences far beyond simply feeling exhausted, or lacking the time for a life outside school.
Too many teachers discover – too late – that they have developed serious and life altering mental health issues …
… affecting their ability to live happy family lives.
Preventing Teacher Burnout
So what are the early signs of a developing mental health problem – and what can teachers do to avoid a deterioration in their own health?
The earliest signs to look out for, are:
1. Changes in Your Mood
Changes in your mood over time, can indicate a problem developing with your mental health.
We all have days when we feel low ...
... but when you start noticing a pattern developing, it is time to recognise this and act to resolve it.
- Are you often grumpy or tetchy in your mood?
- Do you find yourself reacting badly to small things which shouldn’t matter nearly as much as they do?
- Do you experience marked ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in your mood, in response to the events happening around you?
Mentally healthy people can ride out the bad days – and experience many less of them.
Their internal resilience is strong enough to cope with a bad day – without letting it affect the next – or their view of themselves.
To protect your own mental health, it is useful to start noticing patterns in your mood over time - and question why you are experiencing them.
2. How You Sleep
Our bodies use sleep to recover physical and mental energy, so we can go again tomorrow.
Problems with sleep can interfere with your resilience and ability to manage stress ...
... especially in a high-pressure job like teaching.
Problems sleeping can also be an early sign that you are developing a mental health problem too.
- How much sleep do you get each night?
- Do you have trouble sleeping – or are you constantly tired?
- Or could you sleep forever? ... Never truly feeling rested and recovered?
- How do you feel on waking - do you feel refreshed?
It can be useful to monitor how much, and how well you sleep, particularly when you know your life or work, is difficult.
Changes in your patterns of sleep can help you to identify underlying problems which, if recognised early, can be resolved before they become larger issues.
3. Changes in the Relationships You Have with Others
Human beings are social creatures and whether or not you are an outgoing type ...
... your mental health can deteriorate if you feel cut off from other people.
Changes in our relationships with others can also be used to diagnose a developing problem too.
If you notice yourself feeling less connected to people you care about – or if you are having trouble in your relationships with them ...
... it could be a sign that you are at risk of developing mental health issues.
- Are your relationships with those closest to you bumpy (maybe with your children, partner, or parents?)
- Are you reacting differently to problems in the relationships you have?
- Do you regularly feel isolated – like no one understands you?
The relationships we have with other people, can be a useful thermometer of our internal state of mind.
If we notice relationships which we have always enjoyed, changing and becoming more challenging for us ... it can be a sign that we are not coping well in our own lives
4. Levels of Self-Esteem
Our levels of self-esteem can change dramatically as we develop mental health issues.
A happy and confident person can become someone we don’t recognise over time ...
... and our ability to help ourselves deteriorates too, because of this.
- Have your levels of self-worth changed over time?
- Do you suffer from low self esteem – or low levels of confidence in what you can do?
- Do you feel like you have lost a part of you - the happy and confident bit – somewhere along the way?
Changes in our levels of self-esteem can affect almost everything in our lives, from our happiness at work, to our ability to have a happy life with those around us.
Noticing any changes in the value you have in yourself, is a good way to identify developing mental health problems.
5. Your Emotional State
As a mental health problem develops ...
... we become more reactive to the thoughts we have, and more emotional in our responses to them.
Things which would have bounced off us in the past, become sources of stress and upset to us.
As you work in a stressful job, it’s important to be aware of the emotional state you are in, and any patterns which are developing in how you feel.
- Is your emotional state turbulent (rather than stable)?
- Do you feel frequently overwhelmed by your emotions?
- Do you cry easily, sometimes without knowing why?
- Can little things tip you into sadness – so you feel like you are in a rut you can’t get out?
- Does every day feel the same - no bright spots, no blue skies?
It is too easy for teachers to ignore emotional problems, as they develop alongside ridiculous expectations and levels of workload.
It can be easy to think that when you get to a weekend or a holiday, and have time to rest - that you will recover.
In fact what can happen is the opposite.
When the workload and pressure stops for awhile, teachers often discover an unexpected emotional state hiding behind their all-consuming job.
6. Your 'Internal Voice'
I don’t like the expression ‘internal voice’ ...
... because it implies that the thoughts you have about yourself, are you.
They are not.
But, this is language which most people will understand, so I’m going to tolerate it for the purpose of communicating to you clearly.
What I’m talking about here is the thoughts you have about yourself.
- What kind of thoughts do you have about yourself?
- Are these positive or negative? Are they “I can’ or ‘I cannot’?
- Do you tell yourself off internally?
- Do you catch yourself wishing that you could be more like this person – or have what they have?
- Do you find yourself making comparisons between yourself and other people? (and are these comparisons ever positive ones?)
- Do you blame yourself for what is happening to you?
Having a negative view of yourself internally, is an early sign that your mental health is being damaged.
Being able to notice the thoughts you have about yourself, without judging them, is an important way to prevent symptoms of depression later on.
It's important to recognise that we are not our thoughts!
7. The Thoughts You Have
Our minds are filters through which we see the world.
When we are happy and confident in ourselves, we see the happy and positive possibilities in our life.
As you develop problems with your mental health, this filter becomes a negative one ...
- Does your mind race with thoughts that you find difficult to stop?
- Can you recognise patterns of negative thought which occur repeatedly?
- Have you found yourself becoming fixated on one particular problem or issue in your life, and only after this is passed do you realise how irrational some of your thoughts about it had been?
- Do you find yourself rehearsing future conversations or replaying past events in your head?
Rather than accepting the thoughts you have as background noise to your life, start bringing these thoughts into the light so you can identify them.
Observing the thoughts you have (without judgement), can help you diagnose a developing mental health problem.
Mentally healthy people will notice a stream of positive possibilities, whereas those who are developing mental health issues will experience something completely different.
8. What You Do
What we do is typically a result of how we feel.
And we can diagnose a developing mental health problem by observing changes in our behaviour over time.
As a mental health issue progresses, the person suffering from it typically withdraws from significant areas in their life.
- Have you lost interest in social activities?
- Do you still make time for the things which you enjoy outside of work?
- Are you still actively trying to solve the problems you have - or do you accept your unhappy present situation as the only option you have?
Many people react by becoming less emotional or connected, as their mental health problems develop into full-blown burnout.
This can be likened to a shutting down of the senses when things have got too much to cope with.
Teachers might also experience a crisis event, where, on reflection, you can identify irrational or out of character responses to something you experience.
As mental health problems progress those suffering from them value their own lives less.
Sadly, this can result in suicidal thoughts and feelings that the world would be better off without you.
If your own problems progress to thinking things like this, please seek help from a medical professional - or find someone to talk to.
You are likely to be closer to the edge than you realise.
5 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health in a Teaching Job
Preventing teacher burnout is much easier if you ...
1. Recognise the Early Signs of Mental Illness
The early warning signs above, give you the chance to stop a decline in your mental health.
If left untreated (i.e. if you decide to try and live with them), they are likely to get worse - especially if stress in your life continues.
There is a culture of martyrdom in many schools, where teachers can feel obliged or even proud to be suffering under the weight of their jobs.
It goes without saying, that this is an unhealthy and unsustainable attitude to a difficult job.
Recognise the signs of changing mental health in your own life, and take them seriously.
No job should cost you your health.
2. Start Seeing Your Thoughts Differently
Your thoughts are not you - they are simply suggestions your mind is offering - or associations it has been trained to make between things.
Begin to observe your thoughts like this, rather than accept and react to them automatically.
This will give you the power to set your own course, rather than being at the mercy of the tide and weather of your mind.
We are taught many things in our lives to keep us healthy ... what to eat and how much exercise we might need, and many other things.
Sadly, what is missing for many of us, is how to cope with the thoughts we have ...
... particularly later in life where we can become much more reactive to the unresolved issues we have experienced over time.
When we are young our mental slate is cleaner, giving us much less to react to.
When we age and experience more problems in our lives, negative patterns of thought can proliferate and overwhelm us much more easily.
We are only affected by the thoughts we have if we indulge them, react to them - and follow where they lead.
Realising this gives you enormous potential power over the way you feel.
3. Be Aware of the 'Inputs' in Your Life
By 'inputs', I mean the influences which affect you everyday.
They could be your job, the people around you, what you eat or do, what you watch on TV or read ... (etc!)
Input is important because everything you come into contact with has an impact on the thoughts you have - and the emotions you feel.
You probably have control over many of the inputs you are affected by.
Changing these inputs can result in different patterns of thought and different emotional responses.
Become more aware of what triggers the thought patterns you have - and you will be better able to avoid reacting to them.
You might be able to avoid some negative inputs altogether.
4. Develop the Skill of Non-Judgemental Reflection
When we start to observe how we feel, the thoughts we have, and the changes we experience …
… we might slip into analysis and judgement of ourselves.
It goes without saying that blaming yourself is unlikely to be an effective prevention or recovery strategy!
Instead, it is important to develop an ability to observe yourself without judgement.
To do this, spend some quiet time simply noticing how you feel in the present moment.
What feelings do you have? Where do you feel them physically in your body?
Everything in our lives and in the world we exist in, is there because of the conditions that created it.
What conditions might have created the feelings you have?
Through repeated practice of viewing the world like this, as a web of conditions, we start to judge ourselves a great deal less.
This can give you the tools you need to start recovering your mental health, and prevent future problems.
If the overriding theme of this article sounds like mindfulness, then you are not wrong!
However, most mindful approaches are let down by the lack of a means to calm the 'trains of thought' sufferers experience.
In fact, many traditional psychotherapy approaches treatment of negative thought patterns - by asking the patient to disprove them.
The hope is that by challenging the thoughts they have about ourselves, that they will go away.
Too often this results in people dwelling on the thoughts they have - and escalating a 'battle' against them.
Your brain notices which thoughts you dwell on, as a measure of what to think next ...
Training yourself to let thoughts leave without indulging them, is a much better solution to achieving mindfulness.
Meditation does this peacefully.
It is a mental exercise I recommend to anyone in a stressful job who feels they are being overwhelmed by it.
To register your interest in an upcoming course I am preparing especially for teachers ... please enter your email address below.
You will be the first to know when I am ready, and I will send you some advance information to help you get started.
Meditation - a free Guide for Teachers
- Discover a simple 3 minute mental exercise which changes the way you think
- Rid yourself of negative thought patterns and dramatically improve your self image
- Be the first to hear more about my meditation course - created especially for teachers
I hope the knowledge I have shared today helps you.
Teachers are some of the most committed and caring people I have ever worked with.
Thank you for what you do.