According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), burnout is ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. The term was coined in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, and recognises a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Does it sound familiar?

Whether you’re seeing more cases of school staff burnout or you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s something that’s becoming more widely recognised. It’s also becoming more prevalent within education, the sector that’s no stranger to performance and cost pressures. So, what can those responsible for employee wellbeing do to prevent cases of school staff burnout?

What is burnout?

First up, let’s look at the three dimensions the WHO characterises burnout by:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion (i.e. being constantly tired or drained)
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job (like procrastinating and taking longer to get things done)
  3. Reduced professional efficacy (shown through self-doubt or defeat)

It’s also useful to look at what the WHO classes burnout as. It names it a ‘syndrome’, meaning it’s a collection of signs and symptoms that are associated with a specific health-related cause. That’s different to a medical ‘condition’, which is an abnormal state of health that interferes with regular feelings of wellbeing.

When does burnout happen?

Burnout’s likely to happen when you experience stress over a long period of time – for instance, working a stressful job. In the past year, a staggering 91% of adults in the UK have experienced high or extreme levels of pressure or stress at some point. We can also attribute more than half of all work-related illnesses to poor mental health, with stress, depression, or anxiety causing around 51% of long-term sickness.

Honing into stress in the education sector, a recent report found that 85% of MAT Leaders are stressed at work (to some degree). If you don’t get to the bottom of what’s causing you stress or to experience burnout, then you could find that you’re no longer able to meet the demands of your job. And that has knock-on effects to other areas of your life.

Burnout in education

The same report for education found that 1 in 5 MAT Leaders are ‘usually’ stressed and nearly 1 in 10 (8%) are ‘always’ stressed. It’s not uncommon for school staff to feel like they’ve got a never-ending to-do list, to-be list, to-perform list, to-remember list – you name it, the lists can feel never-ending! 

Indeed, many education professionals take on multiple job roles and/or provide cover work to keep students in lessons and the school functioning – the ‘juggle’ can be a cause of stress in itself. But workplace stress, and then staff burnout, rarely go away on their own.

How prevalent is workplace stress in the UK?

Before you can lessen or overcome burnout, you need to understand how prevalent it is in your organisation. When compared to the year before, new polling from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that:

  • Over 1 in 3 workers (36%) are spending more time outside of contracted hours reading, sending and answering emails
  • 40% of people polled say they’ve been required to do more work in the same amount of time
  • 3 in 5 workers feel exhausted at the end of most working days (67% of women and 56% of men)
  • More women (58%) than men (53%) felt that work was getting more intense

We reckon that if you work in education and you’re reading this, then you’ll be able to relate to at least one of the statistics above. Particularly given how staff absence levels continue to fluctuate off the back of the pandemic, and also the ongoing teacher retention and recruitment pressures. Applying these statistics to education specifically, and we know that women are overrepresented in the sector (as they are in health and social care, too).

So, what can HR teams do to prevent their employees from feeling burnt out?

Find out in part 2 of this mini blog series!