How teachers can prevent post-pandemic burnout

During a stressful time there are strategies to avoid burnout.
Manage stress
Don't burn out by keeping it simple

The emergence of COVID-19 has introduced a number of unprecedented challenges to both physical and mental well-being. And whilst no one could have predicted the personal and professional toll of these last few months, research shows that Australian professionals – teachers among them – were already on the fast track to burnout prior to the pandemic. Interestingly, 79 per cent of workers felt they lacked the endurance and flexibility to navigate changes in the workplace.

And for teachers, there have been changes aplenty. In fact, a separate survey called The Springfox COVID-19 People Survey found that the biggest challenge for teachers was adjusting to new ways of working – especially for younger teachers (25-34 years) and older teachers (45 years and older). In addition, heightened feelings anxiety and worry were felt by the majority of teachers across the board.

In the wake of national school shutdowns and the introduction of home learning, teachers were required to quickly upskill themselves and their students, learn new technologies and systems, deliver high-quality learning outcomes under extraordinary circumstances, and support student well-being all whilst battling their own personal challenges that come along with a stressful, world-changing pandemic. The result has been increased teacher productivity at the expense of longer work hours, blurred lines between work and home life, and an anxious and exhausted workforce.

Now, as teachers make the transition back to the classroom, there will be another set of challenges to face and obstacles to overcome – strict social distancing laws to adhere to and enforce, work to catch up on, students to keep safe, anxious kids to look after, and all of the usual challenges that come with teaching.

Given research consistently points to high levels of stress and burnout amongst those in the teaching profession, there has never been a more important time for teachers to invest in their well-being in order to prevent themselves from experiencing burnout as they return to the classroom.

Understandably, current and rapidly changing circumstances will continue to take a significant toll on teachers. As a consequence, this will in turn impact the rate of burnout amongst educators in the months to come if they don’t actively invest in their own resilience and well-being.

It’s been scientifically proven that people who are committed to building resilience are more likely to master stress, improve their mental well-being, grow from challenges and avoid burnout. There are a number of effective ways to build resilience, but here are some of the top ways to help teachers minimise the possibility of burnout as they transition back into the classroom:

  • Simplify: In challenging circumstances, feeling overwhelmed is a natural response. So, start by bringing the goal posts a little closer so that there are achievable wins each day. Remove the noise of lots of projects and supplementary tasks and come back to the core business of teaching. The ability to notch a win, regardless of how small, is important for morale. Taking action and feeling ‘on purpose’ in your work is a key contributor to positive emotional well-being. Take one step at a time.
  • Refresh: Develop clear boundaries physically and mentally around work. Allow yourself the permission to step away, slow down, and spend time doing the things you love. It’s also important to provide yourself with cognitive breaks during the day to come off the constant demands and the feeling of being ‘always on’. Even if it’s just a walk around the block in between classes, or a brisk walk after work to wind down.
  • Renew: Investment in the physical aspect of life (diet, sleep and exercise) is critical to enable sustainable performance in any domain of life. Control and choice around how you maintain self-care fuels motivation. Importantly it allows the brain and body to be in unison for periods in the day when the reality is, often our brain is in the future and our body is forgotten.
  • Connect: When we are feeling worried or overwhelmed, we may be tempted to look inwards and realise the answers we seek are not there. When we reach out and connect to others, we shift our focus outwards and, importantly, engage our curiosity. When we take steps to show interest in others, beyond ourselves, we operate from a place of compassion, which allows us to take our focus off ourselves and our struggles and move forward in other areas.
  • Seek and Get Help: Don’t be afraid to tap into your support networks. Your GP is a great place to start, but you can also reach out to the EAP if your school has one or seek the services of a psychologist.

To build on this, one of biggest drivers of stress for teachers stems from ‘over-caring’ about the needs, opinions or behaviors of others – whether they be students, parents or other teachers. In my work building resilience with educators, I’ve had to teach teachers how to step back from the emotionally charged work they do in their roles. It’s important to understand the emotions of others, without owning the emotion for yourself – this will allow you to respond constructively, without being weighed down by the situation at hand.

The pressure of being a teacher will always hang heavy, but there is a clear silver lining. The pandemic has highlighted the essential and invaluable role of teachers in society, prompting long overdue appreciation for their expertise, passion and commitment from students, parents, the wider community, and most importantly, teachers themselves.