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Helping prevent staff burnout

Mark Solomons - creator of triple ERA and GESS Judges Commendation Award-winning Welbee, an online evaluation and staff wellbeing improvement tool - author of ‘What Makes Teachers Unhappy and What Can You Do About It?’, acclaimed speaker and wellbeing expert with over 14 years’ experience developing leadership and culture in education - shares his top tips on how to recognise and help prevent burnout.

All education staff experience stress. Stress is normal and needed to perform, and there are many stress triggers beyond day-to-day workload - inspections, parents, exams and assessments are a few that cannot be avoided. When stress is prolonged, it may become chronic and lead to burnout, causing lasting detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. Supporting staff to avoid burnout has a positive impact on their lives, and benefits your wellbeing and that of your students.

The starting point is to ensure that we can recognise the symptoms associated with burnout and then identify ways to help alleviate it.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines burnout as:

‘… a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

•  Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

•  Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and

•  Reduced professional efficacy.’

What causes burnout?

Everyone experiences stress - it’s an innate pre-programmed prompt or response, hardwired to avoid harmful situations. Yet, when stress becomes persistent and chronic, rather than avoiding harm it can cause it. ‘Burnout’ - physical and emotional exhaustion – happens when the brain is being continuously flooded with elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes it difficult to ‘shut down’ or relax. Causes of this include workload, perceived lack of control, feeling undervalued, unrewarded or treated unfairly, having no sense of community or support network, or a values ‘mismatch’ between you and your place of work.

Symptoms of burnout

•    We may become irritable, angry, or tearful; feel worried, anxious, hopeless, or scared; struggle to make decisions, have racing thoughts, or feel overwhelmed.

•    Physical symptoms can include stomach problems; stress headaches and muscle pain; skin reactions, like stress rashes and hives; and feeling dizzy, sick or faint.

•    More seriously, prolonged chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and an increased vulnerability to illness.

Stress can also change our behaviours: how much we eat or exercise; our habits and how much we participate socially - seeing friends or doing things we enjoy.

Six tips to help prevent burnout Leaders can implement changes to minimise the effects of stress, modelling behaviours and ‘cascading’ approaches down through the management team and to staff:

1. Remain open to feedback Life is busy, with inflexible timetables, and competing demands for time. When staff feel they do not have a voice or are not taken seriously, their level of frustration increases. Check in with staff regularly and make it clear you are open to feedback and suggestions - take a few minutes to relate, ask questions and listen.

You may not take all the comments or ideas onboard, but as well as using some of the information received to help effect change and ensure your staff feel heard, it provides the opportunity to share reasons why some suggestions are not taken up. Insight from different perspectives can also help fuel your plans, progress developments and improve outcomes.

2.  Be aware of current issues

Feedback from your staff also makes it easier to spot signs of staff burnout. While some situations may be unique to an individual, others could be prevalent across the school. Regularly check in to identify emerging problems, and plan solutions to address them at the earliest opportunity.

3. Provide access to mental health / well-being support and resources

Below are a few ideas for resources to help staff manage their workload and everyday pressures:

• Provide a disruption-free space for breaks

• Look for opportunities for flexible working and accept reduced hours to retain good staff

• When changes are made, discuss any impact on wellbeing with staff

• Offer access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), quality resources or in-school counselling or mentoring support

• Help all leaders understand the impact their behaviour has on others – both positive and negative.

4. Trust staff experience

Preventing burnout becomes easier when staff feel in control. Although teachers are constrained by the timetable, curriculum, outcomes needed and funding, there's still room for creative license. Acknowledge teacher's and assistants' experience and expertise, give them agency over their classroom management, and allow them to teach their classes in a way that works for them. By providing this freedom, you make their lives easier and lighten your workload. 

5. Make praise part of every day

Leaders are usually great at shout-outs, sending staff messages and saying thank you by email, yet they often miss out on giving praise in the moment. Try ‘managing while walking around’. Set a goal to catch people doing things right while going about your everyday tasks. While this can be difficult when staff are dispersed across a site, when done well, the impact is significant.

6. Create a psychologically safe environment

All the previous tips will contribute to what is probably the number one requirement for a low-stress environment:

‘A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes… and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’ Amy Edmondson.

Keeping abreast of current challenges and the potential stressors your staff face; identifying the tell-tale signs of burnout; and responding quickly to help alleviate the causes of them, will all create an environment where more staff will stay and do their best work.

For further information, support, and advice about creating a culture with staff wellbeing at its centre, please contact

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