Throughout my teaching career I have experienced great job satisfaction and fulfilment. Teaching has allowed me the opportunity to create positive change, to instil a love for learning, and to help foster a sense of self-worth, self-belief, and resilience in my pupils.

However, I have also experienced episodes of emotional and physical exhaustion, or ‘burnout’, due to periods of sustained stress, excessive demands, and increasing workload. Throughout my thirty years of service, the profession has changed dramatically, and almost one third of teachers who qualified in the last decade have subsequently left.

As teachers, much of our energy is focused on the needs of our students. But if we are to perform effectively, then we need to prioritise our own self-care. Being aware of potential signs of burnout will enable us to take preventive measures to protect and manage our own mental health.

What is occupational burnout?

Occupational burnout is the result of long term chronic stress in the workplace which negatively impacts physical, mental, and emotional health. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common in the teaching profession and has led to many dedicated teachers deciding to leave and pursue alternative careers. According to the 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Index:

  • 78% of education staff have experienced mental health symptoms due to their work
  • 59% have considered leaving teaching over the past year due to pressures on their mental health and wellbeing
  • 55% have sought to change or leave their current jobs

Yes, teaching can be a wonderful and rewarding career, but the excessive workload, accountability pressures, and ever-shifting expectations can often make it feel a thankless and draining task.

A burnt out school teacher with his head on the desk.

Recognising the signs of burnout

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process, with many of the symptoms often mistaken for anxiety. Unless addressed, burnout can have severe impacts on both physical and mental health.

Signs you may be experiencing burnout:

  • Mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion
  • Feeling increasingly stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed
  • Lack of motivation or enthusiasm
  • Feeling frustrated, irritable, negative, or detached
  • Low self-confidence
  • Physical symptoms e.g. headaches, stomach pains, changes in appetite or sleep pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating or experiencing brain fog
  • Reduced classroom performance

Taking action to avoid or manage burnout

Once we recognise and understand the signs of burnout, we can be proactive and put in place simple measures to avoid or manage it.

1. Develop a good work-life balance

First things first, set clear boundaries between school and home life.

During school hours, try to implement time-saving strategies such as live-marking, which will not only reduce your evening workload, but will increase the quality of feedback to students. If you must bring marking home, set aside designated relaxation time. It’s all too easy to let marking or planning take over an evening or an entire weekend.

I can remember spending whole weekends sitting in front of the computer while my husband took the kids to gymnastics and the park. By Sunday evening, I felt exhausted and guilty for not having spent time with my family. And then the emails would start rolling in about the upcoming week’s schedule…

A teacher’s ‘to-do list’ is never ending, but it’s vital to set aside time to relax and unwind. If possible, try to finish work at the same time every day. Have a cut off point (say 7:30 pm) after which exercise books are closed, emails are muted, and school talk is forbidden!

A good work-life balance also includes taking proper lunch breaks (rather than mindlessly eating a sandwich whilst marking books).

Over-the-shoulder view of a woman holding a TV remote and surfing for television programmes.

2. Don’t strive for perfection

This ties in with the previous point. There will always be a myriad of tasks to accomplish, so the key is to prioritise what is the most important and what can wait.

If you’re a perfectionist like me, it’s tempting to spend an entire afternoon writing an hour-long lesson plan, or hours after school creating elaborate classroom displays. I’ve come to realise that perfection simply isn’t feasible in teaching, and it’s okay to aim for ‘good enough’.

3. Learn to say no

Learning to say no is more difficult than it sounds and many teachers struggle with setting boundaries. However, it’s an important skill to develop and will prevent you from overcommitting yourself.

Know your priorities and be realistic about what additional demands you can meet. It might not go down well if you say no to teaching your class, but it is entirely reasonable to say no to extra duties such as lunch break pupil supervision!

4. Support network

Having a support network in place at work, whether it be a trusted colleague or a mix of school staff, can be a real lifesaver when you’re in need of emotional support.

They’ll understand the pressures of the job and be able to relate to any challenges you’re facing, offering a fresh perspective when you’re struggling, feeling frustrated, or just needing a sounding board.

You may have a very understanding partner or great group of friends, but there are only so many times they’ll want to hear you ranting about your workload or disengaged students!

Two teachers chatting and catching up while standing at a printer in the school corridor.

5. Check in on your own mental health

Don’t forget to routinely check in on your own mental health. How are you feeling today? Is there anything worrying you? Are things starting to get on top of you? Do you need to reach out to someone for some extra support?

And remember to pay attention to your physical health. Adopting healthy living habits, such as taking regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining good sleep hygiene, will not only benefit you physically, but also mentally.

It’s all too common for teachers to experience episodes of emotional or physical exhaustion at some point in their career. If you recognise the signs of burnout in yourself (or one of your colleagues) be proactive, seek support, and take action to stop it in its tracks.

Wendy Wood

Wendy is a retired teacher, tutor, and mother of two. Her teaching career spanned 30 years in a variety of educational settings.