I will always remember my first term working in a school. I couldn’t believe how absolutely knackered I was – I don’t think I had ever been so tired in my life. The job itself – school counsellor -didn’t hold as much responsibility as I had assumed in my previous roles managing charities. I wasn’t responsible for staff, or finding funding, or for keeping the organisations afloat. The problems I helped with, for the main, weren’t ‘heavier’ than in previous roles where I had worked with young people in crisis. It was something else. Something else that I had never felt before – the feeling of being part of a huge machine that just doesn’t stop for breath. I laugh about it now – my caseload at the time was tiny in comparision to how many students I saw the year I left, but it wasn’t the amount of work as such, it was feeling like you could never stop – there was always something or someone that needed your attention. If you got distracted for even a second you would miss something important. And the emails – my goodness the sheer volume of emails!
I don’t find it surprising therefore that a 2019 study found that 40% of British teachers were considering leaving the profession – and this was pre-Covid. My guess is that it is much higher now. When I left my international school in 2022, a third of the teaching staff went at the same time. After 18 months of being locked into the country, many wanted to be closer to their families in Europe. Many left the profession altogether.
I have facilitated a number of staff wellbeing groups for both teaching and non-teaching staff recently, and the struggle is the same for both. The long first term has all school staff clinging on for dear life, struggling to get to the end. 14, 15 even 16 week terms are normal, and exhaustion is normalised. “What do you like best about your job” I ask people – “the holidays” are usually the reply. Term time is full of demands. Parents demanding that their children get the right extra-curriculas or that the buses run on time. Students demanding that their teachers give them advice about essays and homework over the weekends. Senior Leadership ‘dropping’ a last minute activity or task upon already overloaded staff. A never ending stream of emails demanding to be read.
Unsurprisingly then, burnout is all too common amongst people who work in schools. I have seen it firsthand with a colleague I valued greatly. Sadly, by the time we realised what was happening for her, it was already too late and she ended up leaving. It starts with an expectation on yourself that you must prove yourself and you must do more. It ends with you physically unable to go to work. In between you feel guilt that you are letting people down, anger and irritability with colleagues and students, and, feeling unable to face colleagues you isolate yourself. It is possible to bounce back from burnout, but for many this means a change of school, or leaving the profession altogether.
There are a number of factors which affect the likelihood of burning out which are not just about the workload someone is faced with. These include staff members feeling unappreciated by their management, not feeling they have autonomy or control over their work and a lack of community and support.
So what helps? When asked that question, school staff routinely say ensuring they do things outside of work, like hobbies or exercise. But they also acknowledge that these can be the first things to go when they start feeling tired. Asking for help from colleagues, and taking the time to check in with each other during the day can be a lifeline. Seperating home from school by deleting your school email account from your phone is a controversial one, with some staff too scared to do so despite their being no requirement to have it on there. If you can’t delete it, don’t answer emails after 5pm. Or if you have to, schedule send them for 7am the following day – this will reduce the expectation on you that you are available 24/7. And, finally, if you start to realise you are struggling, seek professional help from a counsellor or other mental health professional. Burnout is tough – understand the signs to get the help you need early.