How to recognise and manage teacher burnout

With increasing stressors and responsibilities in the teaching profession, more and more teachers are experiencing burnout.

Learn what teacher burnout is, how to recognise its signs and symptoms, and, most importantly – what you can do if you are burnt out.

Teacher looking into camera

What is teacher burnout?

Let’s be real: teaching is a rewarding career. It’s inspiring to be able to shape the lives of young people and set them up for success. But as a caring profession, it can also be taxing – emotionally, mentally and physically.

Sadly, this means burnout is all too common among teachers. But what exactly is it?

While most of us get stressed at some point in our careers, burnout is the result of chronic work stress over an extended period of time. It can manifest as long-term physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, and can lead to a decline in mental health, increased career dissatisfaction, and even to the decision to leave the profession altogether.

What causes teacher burnout?

When it comes to teaching, there are many factors at play, ranging from the personal to the professional. There are staffing shortages to contend with, curriculum and lesson plans to design, students with complex needs to cater for, a range of mandatory training boxes to tick, and, of course, the sheer amount of administrative work to be done outside of the core business of teaching.

It’s no wonder that, even before the pandemic, high rates of teacher occupational stress were reported globally. Australian teachers have also reported the following factors as contributing to burnout: excessive workload, lack of resources, deadlines, student behaviour and workplace culture.

Recognising the signs of teacher burnout

Burnout goes further than having the occasional stressful day in the classroom. It can present itself in a range of ways in both your personal and professional life. Some of the key signs to look out for include:

  • losing the passion or motivation to be a teacher

  • being easily emotionally dysregulated (irritability, anger, sadness)

  • withdrawing emotionally from co-workers, students, friends and family

  • finding it harder to perform regular or basic tasks (e.g. preparing a lesson plan)

  • flatness or a lack of emotions

  • difficulty sleeping

  • performance issues (lack of productivity related to feelings of apathy, lack of self-worth, low self-confidence, hopelessness).

These symptoms overlap with the symptoms of depression and other mental health concerns. If you’re worried, it’s best to see a GP. Some employers also have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can offer support.

Tips for preventing and managing teacher burnout

Teachers are so used to caring for others that they often forget to care for themselves. While preventing and managing feelings of burnout can feel like yet another responsibility, in reality, looking after yourself helps you better support your students and your whole school community. It can be helpful to think of this idea as being similar to the safety procedures on an airplane – i.e. fit your own mask first before fitting others.

Preventing teacher burnout

  • Prioritise self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone – but essentially it’s anything you do that helps to improve your own wellbeing. It can be as simple as creating a good sleeping routine, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, or engaging in activities like meditation, journaling or meeting up with friends. For inspiration, read up about self-care for professionals and how to develop a self-care plan.

  • Set and keep clear work boundaries. For example, make it clear to your students and their families that you’ll only respond to emails during work hours and within a 24- to 48-hour timeframe unless the matter is urgent. You could also give yourself a set time to stop working outside school hours each night and stick to it. Remember, it’s okay to say ‘no’.

  • Identify the early warning signs. Having an awareness and understanding of burnout, stress and your own mental health can help you step back, take stock of your situation and act early. Beyond Blue has some helpful strategies for managing stress and anxiety.

  • Seek out connections. Seeking connections with the people you work with can help protect you against stress and burnout. Given how common burnout is, it’s likely that some of them will have had similar experiences. Taking time to build teacher–student relationships can also help to boost your wellbeing. Try our Wellbeing Fives for some simple ways to do this.

Managing teacher burnout

  • Be kind to yourself. First, it’s important to remind yourself that teaching is a difficult job! And that you’re not failing your students, or failing as a teacher, by looking after yourself. Self-compassion can go a long way in boosting your overall sense of wellbeing.

  • Talk it out. If you feel comfortable, talk to your manager, a colleague, friends or loved ones about the symptoms you’re experiencing. Turning to someone you trust can be a practical action to help you understand what you’re going through, feel more grounded, and work together on next steps.

  • Evaluate your options. If you have specific concerns or needs, your school should be supportive in putting strategies in place to help you during this challenging time, such as decreasing your workload, setting up a co-teaching arrangement or offering sick leave where needed.

  • Seek formal support. If you need extra help, it’s important to seek assistance early. Chatting with your local GP or health service is a good first step. If your school has an EAP, you can also make use of the range of external and internal mental health support it provides.

What can I do now?

  • Take a teacher self-care quiz to find out what self-care strategies might help you.

  • Learn how to build a positive learning environment through positive psychology.