Why are so many school leaders experiencing burnout?

  • 4 minute read
  • 24 April 2024

Teacher burnout is real and on the rise. With each passing year, the demands placed on teachers seem to multiply, stretching their time, energy, and emotional resilience to the brink. Educators are under unprecedented levels of stress, which has led to alarming rates of exhaustion and disenchantment. But the worst part is that burnt out teachers often pass off their exhaustion for stress, not fully understanding the impact the burnout is having on their physical and emotional health.

What is burnout?

Burnout refers to a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion experienced by educators as a result of prolonged stress, overwork, and feelings of being overwhelmed by the demands of their profession. It is characterised by a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and reduced personal accomplishment or effectiveness in their role as school leaders.

What causes school leaders to burn out?

According to Australian Catholic University’s annual Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, in 2023 the ‘sheet quantity of work’ and ‘lack of time to focus on teaching and learning’ are the top stressors of school leaders. The quantity of work was the highest source of stress for school leaders regardless of their career stage, with the most experienced educators (>21 years in education leadership) all the way through to those with the least leadership experience (</=5).

The survey also showed the upward trend continued for school leaders, with 48% being subjected to physical violence, the highest number since the survey began. Threats of violence also increased to 53%.

These figures represent significant disparities compared to the general population, indicating a pressing need for mental health support within the education sector.

What is the impact of leader burnout?

School leader burnout is a significant issue for the Australian education system. 18,83% of principals surveyed had anxiety levels within the moderate to severe range and 18.05% had depression levels within the same range. It comes as no surprise that 56% of school leaders have seriously considered leaving their job in the last 12 months.  

What are the signs of burnout?

School leadership is a stressful job, but stress and burnout are two different things and it’s important to recognise the difference. Some common signs include:

  1. Physical Fatigue: Constant fatigue, sleep disturbances, and frequent illnesses can indicate physical exhaustion associated with burnout.
  1. Emotional Exhaustion: Feeling irritable, sad, flat, helpless, angry or even a lack of emotions all together could indicate that you’re emotionally exhausted. You may also have difficulty concentrating or staying focused on tasks.
  1. Reduced Passion: Burnout can lead to decreased motivation and engagement with teaching, reducing the enthusiasm you once felt for your job. This may result in an increase in procrastination and decreased productivity.
  1. Increased Absenteeism: Going to work may feel harder, so you may frequently call in sick or take personal days to avoid the source of stress. 
  1. Social Withdrawal: Withdrawal from social interactions, reluctance to participate in work events or activities, or a sense of isolation from colleagues can be indicative of burnout.
  1. Disrupted sleep: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep due to heightened stress and emotional strain.

How to manage burnout

If you think you’re experiencing burnout, know that you’re not alone and there are things you can do to manage it. 

Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to colleagues, mentors or friends for guidance, empathy, and encouragement. Sharing experiences and seeking help can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide valuable coping strategies for managing burnout.

Identify the Issues: Are their specific challenges that are leading to your burnout? It might be a lack of support from leadership, a particularly disruptive class, a process that isn’t working for you. If you can pinpoint one or more issues that you believe are the root cause of your burnout, talk to the leaders at your school about them and make a plan to overcome them.

Consider extra help: You may need to reach out to a professional for help if you need it. Start by chatting to your GP and together you can put together a plan. Your school may also have an EAP with resources for you to access. 

How can you prevent burnout?

Burnout is common among school leaders, but it isn’t inevitable; there are steps you can take to avoid it. Helpful ways to prevent teacher burnout include:

Establish Boundaries: Set clear boundaries between work and personal life to prevent work from encroaching on your downtime. Taking work home or staying late at school won’t just increase your stress levels, it will stop you from prioritising activities that recharge and rejuvenate you.

Prioritise You: Make yourself a priority by incorporating activities such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones into your routine. Taking regular breaks and nurturing your physical and mental well-being are essential for preventing burnout.

Re-evaluate Your Approach to Work: It’s easy to get stuck in a work rut, so it’s important to schedule some time to pause and consider what your priorities actually are and make sure that’s where your time is being spent. If you’re drowning in paperwork and spending no time on tasks you love or know will make a difference, consider the small steps you can take to incorporate more of what you want to be doing into your day.

Reignite Your Passion: Talking to fellow educators or engaging in professional development are simple ways you can reignite your passion for teaching and boost your resilience in the face of burnout.

Collaborate with colleagues: If you’re starting to feel stress creep in, make some to connect with your colleagues. Sharing experiences and talking through challenges may help you feel less alone and give you the support you need to get through tough times.

School leader burnout is a complex issue influenced by various factors, including workload, resources, expectations, and work-life balance. Recognising the signs of burnout and implementing strategies to manage and prevent it are essential for promoting well-being and sustaining a high-quality education system.

How does Maths Pathway support school leaders?

Maths Pathway was created by teachers who understand burnout. In fact, it was burnout that led them to creating our program. If you want to learn more about how Maths Pathway can support you, try the program for free today.

Author: Maths Pathway
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