Exactly five years ago, I was in my 20th year teaching ESL and EAP. Instead of celebrating this milestone, I was making plans to leave a career that I had loved. Unfortunately, at that time, I had no idea about teacher burnout or more specifically, the warning signs. I had slowly lost interest in my work, stopped caring, become cynical, and even had a few unprofessional outbursts with colleagues. The warning signs were there, but I did not see them. Nor did my colleagues who had known me for several years. Burning out for me was a slow burn—like the feeling you get from holding onto a rope in a game of tug-of-war. I knew I was slipping, yet I couldn’t get a grip. It was painful but I could no longer hang on. In December 2015, I finally left a career that I had loved for twenty years.
During the next 18 months, I spent time researching teacher burnout in order to understand what happened to me, and how other teachers could prevent burnout, too. I found the work of Dr. Christine Maslach, who had been researching burnout for decades, revealing. Maslach and Leiter (2016) define burnout as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (p. 103). In addition to her extensive research related to burnout, I was fascinated to discover the Maslach Burnout Inventory (2016), a tool that she developed. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to assess one’s level of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and I think it is a valuable assessment tool for all educators and encourage you to take it. Teachers who have burnout do not always have depression but burnout may increase the risk of depression. Since depression and burnout share similar symptoms, such as feeling down, extreme exhaustion, and reduced performance, seeking help from medical professionals is recommended (InformedHealth, 2020).
During my research, I discovered that most studies in the area of teacher burnout have focused on K-12 teachers. It is no surprise that K-12 teachers are among those professionals with the highest levels of job stress and burnout, across many countries, as illustrated by Stoeber and Rennert (2008). However, as a college professor, I was most interested to find out about teacher burnout in higher education. In fact, burnout levels in academia are comparable to the K-12 sector (Sabagh et al., 2018). Over the past 20 years, faculty members at post-secondary institutions internationally have experienced rising levels of stress and burnout due to increasing demands for quality instruction, research excellence, and service, often without the necessary institutional support (Catano et al., 2010). Teaching during the pandemic has contributed, in many cases, to more demanding workloads and more stress. A recent survey conducted with educators in Canada found that, only two months into the current semester (the school year begins in September), there are reports of increasing stress and burnout, and about one-third of respondents indicated that they are considering retirement and/or a career change (Luck, 2020). Unreasonable workloads, lack of control, perceived unfairness, and differences in values between teachers and administrators are some of the risk factors of professional burnout. The fact that burnout can be contagious is also concerning. People who are experiencing burnout can have a negative impact on their colleagues. Thus, burnout can perpetuate itself through social interactions on the job (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).
To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life as we knew it as teachers is an understatement. In the northern-hemisphere Spring, teachers around the world quickly pivoted in order to teach students remotely. I returned to teaching in January 2020 with no idea how my career as a classroom instructor was about the change. I had one week to design my course content, get it uploaded, and learn how to teach virtually. It was a stressful time, with a message from the Administration that faculty were expected to do everything possible to make sure students completed their courses successfully, while helping them to manage their mental health and well-being. Teachers are resilient professionals who can rise to a challenge, but with a prolonged pandemic, cracks are becoming more visible now.
Many teachers are finding the workloads during COVID-19 tare depleting their capacity to meet the demands of the job. The real danger is when there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance. There is evidence (Schaufeli & Taris, 2014) that strongly supports the idea that both job demands (e.g. work overload) and a lack of job resources (job control, support) are predictors of burnout. Understanding the warning signs or the yellow zones is critical so that teachers can identify when it is time to slow down and rest. I have spoken to many ESL teachers (in Canada) who reported that, once they began teaching online in the Spring, coordinators added extra tasks such as research projects to their workload. These tasks, or administrative projects, were perceived by the teachers as “busy work.” In their minds, these additional tasks were given because administrators did not trust them to work at home, teaching their students without supervision. The fear of burnout for me lurks, as I put in countless hours to create content for four new courses, to figure out a new learning management system, to develop and perfect my teaching skills via Zoom, and to manage students’ anxiety, while smiling through my own personal stress and fatigue. I worry that school leaders and teachers may be unaware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, which include exhaustion (physical, emotional, and cognitive), cynicism toward the meaning of work, a sense of inadequacy at work, and disengagement (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). I feel dangerously close to the edge again, but I have a greater awareness of what I need to do to stay well.
In the Spring, it was common for mental health professionals to be interviewed by the media, providing valuable information to Canadians. For example, in May 2020, Dr. David Selby from the Canadian Association of Mental Health suggested that “It’s normal to worry, but we need to find a balance. Self-care at this time is critical.” As a self-care advocate, I was happy to hear this message. One of the quotes that I frequently use to support my work in self-care is from Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison (2011) who argue that: “Self-care is always important but at times of personal crisis/excessive stress, it’s even more important.” The year 2020 has definitely been a time of excessive stress, and self-care is imperative. It is not a luxury, self-indulgent, or something nice to do when we have time. It is necessary because of the work we do, especially now. It is a way to potentially avoid one’s “best-before” date. But, as Angela Watson (2019) reminds us, self-care “is not a replacement for disrupting structures and oppressive institutions.” She means that just because teachers are practicing self-care, it doesn’t mean that institutions and school leaders are off the hook. We must continue to be vocal about things like precarious work, workloads, etc. As teaching professionals, we must continue to self-advocate and ask for what we need, whether it is training, more resources, or support. Accepting help when it is offered is also important. When my coordinator offered, twice this semester, to complete some of my administrative tasks, I gratefully accepted.
There are several definitions for self-care but the one I like to use is from Newell and MacNeil (2010). They define it as “the strategies used to maintain our personal, emotional and spiritual needs while attending to the needs of others.” Many teachers have expressed to me the feeling that self-care is their responsibility and one more thing to add to their growing to-do list. Cherkowski and Walker (2018) remind us that self-care is a personal, interpersonal, and organizational responsibility. Interpersonal support means encouraging colleagues to engage and practice self-care; however, it doesn’t often happen Teachers are often reluctant to engage in well-being initiatives for “fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well” (Wellahead, 2018). It’s a matter of building each other up, and not tearing colleagues down. Ideally, all schools should embrace flourishing or well-being, but teachers shouldn’t wait says Cherkowski and Walker.
 A “best-before” date is a date printed on food products showing when the quality of the product is likely to start going down.
Finding time for a self-care practice seems impossible right now, but one of the silver linings for me during this pandemic has been the opportunity to switch from teaching EAP to positive psychology—the science of human flourishing. I’m reminded daily of the numerous and relatively simple ways to increase our well-being by experiencing more positive emotions (joy, pride, surprise, and awe), practicing gratitude, and engaging in random acts of kindness. As I teach various concepts of positive psychology, including interventions and/or strategies, I’m actively engaged in taking steps to feel happier and to positively impact others around me. A daily nature walk, weekly chats with friends on the phone, making pizza from scratch with my son, and getting lost in a stack of fiction beside my bed each night, add to a sense that I can do something to ward off burnout. I can switch off the news and delete social media apps from my phone as a pro-active step in managing my health and well-being.
Some Self Care Tips
- Go for a nature walk. Even five minutes outdoors can increase your level of well-being.
- Call a friend or meet for a coffee.
- Buy fresh flowers.
- Look at family photos.
- Have a game night.
- Watch a funny movie and laugh.
- Get lost in a good book.
- Savour a positive experience. This
technique is called positive mental time
travel, in which individuals remember past positive events or anticipate future positive events.
- Be a tourist in your own town. Look at things with new eyes. Find a free local map.
- Find an activity that brings you a sense of peace and joy.
For more ideas, download my free 101 Teacher Self-Care Ideas & Inspiration Guide.
Self-care may not be the only antidote to burnout, but it gives me a feeling of self-efficacy. I’m grateful to be able to return to a career that I loved, after taking 18 months off to focus on my health and well-being. Teaching is a rewarding profession but not without occupational hazards, so putting ourselves first by practicing self-care is always important, but necessary during these challenging times. When I think about being in a tug-of-war now, I feel confident that I’m strong and well, so I can hang on across the finish line.
Catano, V., Francis, L., Haines, T., Kirpalani, H., Shannon, H., Stringer, B., & Lozanzki, L. (2010). Occupational stress in Canadian universities: A national survey. International Journal of Stress Management, 17(3), 232–258.
Cherkowski, S., & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher wellbeing: Noticing, nurturing, sustaining and flourishing in schools. Burlington, ON: Word & Deed Publishing.
InformedHealth.org [Internet]. (2020). Depression: What is burnout? Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/
Luck, S. (2020). Teachers reporting burnout, exhaustion 2 months into school year. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/teachers-reporting-burnout-exhaustion-2-months-into-school-year-1.5778363
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111.
Maslach, C., Jackson, S., Leiter, M., Schaufeli, W., & Schwab, R. (2016). Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI). https://www.mindgarden.com/117-maslach-burnout-inventory-mbi
Newell, J. & MacNeil, G. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue: A review of theoretical terms, risk factors, and preventive methods for clinicians and researchers. Best Practices in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.
Sabagh, Z., Hall, N. C., & Saroyan, A. (2018). Antecedents, correlates and consequences of faculty burnout. Educational Research, 60(2), 131-156.
Schaufeli, W. B., & Taris, T. W. (2014). A critical review of the job demands-resources model: Implications for improving work and health. In G. F. Bauer & O. Hämmig (Eds.), Bridging occupational, organizational and public health: A transdisciplinary approach (p. 43–68). Berlin, Germany: Springer Science + Business Media.
Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2011). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21, 37–53.
Watson, A. (2019, September 19). Teacher self-care. [Conference Presentation]. Teacher Self-Care Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
Wellahead (2018). Research brief: Promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff. https://www.wellahead.ca/resources/2018/6/18/
Patrice Palmer has been in the ELT field for 25 years. She has a BA, BEd, MA, and MEd, certificates in Positive Psychology and Positive Education, and is a certified Mindfulness facilitator. Patrice’s experience with burnout prompted her to reflect on her lack of self-care and adopt positive psychology interventions that she now shares. Check out her website at www.patricepalmer.ca
Her book The Teacher Self-Care Manual is available at Alphabet Publishing https://www.alphabetpublishingbooks.com/