Educators need more than free massages and yoga sessions to manage chronic workplace stress. Bolster staff well-being and retention with these tips.
When it comes to mitigating teacher burnout, yoga sessions, therapy dogs, and massage chairs might seem like genuine efforts. But to alleviate workplace stress in K–12 schools, most teachers are looking for a deeper commitment to creating lasting, meaningful change. Long hours, overwhelming workloads, school violence, limited wages, political discord and distrust from parents or supervisors can all leave teachers feeling disregarded and overwhelmed. Left unchecked, such stressors lead to teacher burnout and, as a result, high staff turnover. To truly improve staff well-being, district and school leaders must find out what staff really need and endeavor to meet those needs through lasting structural change, instead of superficial remedies.
Today’s educators are significantly more stressed than most other working adults. A 2022 survey on educator well-being shows that about twice as many teachers and principals report experiencing frequent job-related stress compared to the general population of working adults. More teachers and principals also reported increased symptoms of depression, a lower ability to cope with job-related stress, and more burnout compared to other working adults.
While districts and schools have limited resources to add new staff programs and resources, district leaders can help manage workplace stressors and create a supportive culture in which staff feel respected and motivated to stay. Here are three ideas to prevent teacher burnout and to address common challenges to staff well-being.
1. Address Teacher Burnout with Transparency and Staff Input
For many educators, their well-being is tightly bound to the amount of respect they feel. When teachers feel disrespected or unheard by their supervisors, it can easily lead to lower morale and teacher burnout
In their highly visible role, teachers also face criticism and judgement from parents, students, and community members, which can further jeopardize the amount of respect they feel on the job. There can be times when it’s challenging for teachers to know when they’re doing a good job. But research shows that feeling respected and supported is a large factor in determining whether an employee stays or leaves a job.
To counter these concerns, leaders can take steps to foster transparency and collaboration in their schools and districts and, as a result, to help staff feel more affirmed and valued:
- Bring staff into decisions about their own care and wellness. Ask them what supports they need to succeed in their roles. Collect suggestions from all staff members, then ask them to select from the top three to five options.
- Gather and listen to staff input. When it comes to implementing new programs or conducting strategic planning, involve as many partners as possible, including staff. Use surveys to learn what’s important to staff, how they view the current state of their school, and what they believe would improve conditions in the future. When staff do provide feedback, be open-minded and act upon those insights.
- Keep teachers in the loop. Communicate regular school or district updates, even if those updates don’t seem directly related to their role. Take five minutes at every meeting to provide timely updates, share how you’re responding to staff input, and ask staff how you can help them do their jobs better.
- Explain why and how decisions are made. Some school or district decisions can be made with staff input, while others must be made by senior leadership alone. With the latter, it’s important to help staff understand and accept a decision, particularly if they disagree with it. Explain the rationale for the final decision and acknowledge that while some may disagree, a decision was reached through careful consideration of multiple viewpoints. Build staff buy-in by sharing how the decision connects to a larger goal and be ready to listen and respond thoughtfully to their feedback. This paves the way for open conversations about decision-making while still respecting appropriate boundaries within the organization.
Understand your district’s current climate and get a framework for improving it with Hanover’s The Why and How of a Positive School Climate Infographic.
2. Be Mindful of How Increased Workloads Contribute to Teacher Stress & Burnout
One of the most significant challenges K–12 staff face is taking on more work outside of their normal duties, without any additional compensation. On any given day, we might find teachers who, in addition to typical classroom instruction, are juggling lunch or recess duty, providing case management, covering for a sick colleague, or using their breaks to give students additional instruction time. Teaching students with greater learning and behavioral needs might require additional lesson planning and classroom preparation. Even summers aren’t always guaranteed time off, as some staff use the time to tackle professional development, develop curriculum, or work an extra job.
School staff have increasing workloads, little planning time, and overloaded schedules. This increases stress and drives teacher burnout. When teachers are pinched for time and adequate resources, they can’t do their best work. Yet the quality of their work is a key indicator of a school or district’s success.
While support may look different depending on the school or district, here are some ways leaders can support more balanced workloads and create a better work environment:
- Provide opportunities for staff to work together. Professional learning communities, work groups, or buddying up during prep time can be positive ways for staff to build connections and share ideas and resources. Be ready to provide administrative support and training to ensure that structured collaborations are successful.
- Combine well-being activities into existing training or meetings. Even a wellness activity such as a staff yoga session can feel like one more thing for staff to schedule in their busy day. Ask staff for input on what activities would be welcome and find ways to combine gatherings and activities to reduce additional scheduling burdens on staff.
- Go slowly when implementing a new program. Many teachers report being asked to start over with new programming from year to year, which puts an additional burden on them to continually learn new systems and develop new lessons. Over time, this can erode their trust in new initiatives. Consider how often program changes occur and account for adequate implementation time and resources to support staff training and adjustment across the entire school year.
Looking for ways to recruit and retain quality, diverse staff? Download our guide to Inclusive Teacher Recruitment and Retention Practices.
3. Lead with Flexibility, Strategic Thinking, and Patience to Improve Staff Well-Being
While it’s important to stay aware of what your staff needs, it’s equally important to examine your own leadership skills to ensure you’re ready to help staff manage their stress and to prevent teacher burnout. Follow these tips to be a leader that staff will trust and respect:
- Be open to changing your mind. While you bring plenty of wisdom and skill to your role as a leader, remember that no one person has all the answers. Seek information from a variety of people and sources. Follow wherever the data takes you, and trust that it can lead you to solutions you might not have considered. It’s also important to acknowledge that todays’ teachers and students face many new concerns that didn’t exist in the past and that require a new or different approach to address.
- Leverage historical insights when planning. When making key decisions, consider the history of the district to see what’s already been done and what has or hasn’t worked in the past. While the past won’t necessarily predict what will work in the future, it may shed light on key considerations. Talk to your staff members: Some of them have worked at a particular site longer than their supervisors, and they might have important insights on past pitfalls or successes. Involving staff in this process also builds trust and strengthens relationships.
- Remember that change is a long-term process. Changes in the workplace don’t usually happen overnight. It may take time for staff to adopt new skills or strategies, and, when challenges arise, it’s easy to slip back into old, familiar habits. School and district leaders must be ready to provide ongoing support for change management with multiple follow-up methods, acknowledging milestones (particularly the small wins to keep up momentum), and celebrating achievements.
Preparing for a district leadership change? Get best practices and tips for a smooth transition. Download the New Superintendent Transition Toolkit.
In the end, the success of our students and the success of our school staff is interconnected. The more we give students what they need, the more teachers feel supported. In addition, the more we listen to and give teachers what they need, the more students gain. Taking some time to listen, connect, nurture, and be responsive to your staff has the potential to benefit everyone’s well-being in your district.
— Laura Baker, PhD, and Jessica Wokas, MEd, Instructional Advisors, K–12 Education, Hanover Research