Understand how to identify teacher burnout and promote collective K-12 staff well-being to increase professional retention and student achievement.
45% of teachers report burn out “always” or “very often”, according to a 2022 Gallup Poll. Most leaders understand the negative effects of teacher burnout such as lower retention rates, decreased mental/physical health, larger class sizes, negative student outcomes. However, the warning signs of burnout and how to check in with staff aren’t always at the forefront of conversation. The only way to promote K-12 staff well-being is to understand what factors cause negative teacher outcomes and how to foster a culture of collective well-being.
By understanding the warning signs of burnout, promoting collaboration and collective efficacy, and upholding a work culture that destigmatizes teacher health challenges, districts can promote a positive school climate and increase staff retention.
Recognizing Signs of Burnout to Promote Collective K–12 Staff Well-Being
Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS) can sneak up very quickly for an educator who is spread too thinly or exposed to pain, suffering, violence or even death. Their leaders or colleagues may not notice the warning signs that burnout could be around the corner.
While literature generally regards burnout as an occupational phenomenon, more mental health professionals are recognizing the dangerous health consequences of burnout. In severe cases, it may take several months to several years for a burnt out individual to return to a state of mental wellness. Similarly, STS may be just as life-altering as the more widely recognized post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is teacher burnout? What does burnout look like for educators?
Mental health professionals continue to find connections between mental well-being and physical outcomes. The connection between mind and body within the health landscape has never been stronger. Moreover, district leaders must consider the three dimensions of burnout or STS warnings in tandem, to foster K-12 staff well-being.
- Physical warning signs: This dimension of burnout includes chronic fatigue and exhaustion. Other signs may also be evident, such as trouble paying attention, confusion, or startling easily. Additionally, burnout may affect sleeping and eating habits. Survivors may also experience unexplained headaches, stomachaches, or painful muscle tension.
- Emotional warning signs: Includes excessive worry or anxiety about students or colleagues in danger, disconnection or numbing, or feelings of compassion fatigue, demoralization, or resignation. Individuals may also experience event/crisis-related intrusive thoughts or distressing dreams. In some cases, survivors may experience a constant replaying of events or even have some confusion and difficulty making everyday decisions.
- Social and interpersonal warning signs: Includes serious difficulties in relationships at home or work. Mental health experts also cite new onset irritability, outbursts of anger, social withdrawal, or isolation as extreme stress reactions. Other signs can include attempts to over-control at work or compulsions to be a “rescuer” during other high-stress situations.
Part of preventing burnout is building a culture of awareness, taking time to provide direct check-ins and to measure the current state of wellness/burnout. Consider the following takeaways when aiming to help prevent educator burnout:
- Conduct staff well-being surveys to understand how each school’s employees are handling stressors.
- Administrators and other leaders should provide direct and thorough check-ins with all employees, during and after adverse experiences, if possible.
- Districts with limited capacity and time may establish “buddy systems” to make sure all educators have someone to talk with during times of elevated stress.
- Be sure to ask specific questions on surveys or during check-ins that invite employees to share their honest needs for support and care. For example, consider asking how their families are doing and if they have access to a support network.
Help create a team that celebrates differences and reflects a diverse student body with our guide, Inclusive Teacher Recruitment and Retention Practices.
Increasing the Efficacy of Teacher Support Systems
Seeking peer or professional support is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Many individuals may hesitate to reach out for help because they lack an official diagnosis or experience what some call “mental health imposter syndrome.” The truth is that everyone benefits from support regardless of their current situation or medical history. In a district that values collective staff well-being, everyone should receive opportunities to support themselves and others —regardless of the simplicity or complexity of their needs.
By providing multiple avenues of support, districts can help boost staff agency, and even facilitate meaningful peer connections within a school to promote collective K-12 staff well-being, and collective teacher efficacy. Constructing a multi-tiered model of support allows employees to take control of their well-being in accordance with their needs and preferences. Use the following tips on how to create a multi-tiered framework of support for your staff:
- Consider proactive measures for sustaining wellness such as modeling mindfulness-based exercises and constructing designated wellness rooms/spaces.
- Establish small groups to promote peer-to-peer support and boost collective wellness.
- Connect one-on-one with those who need it most and consider offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to make professional mental health assistance a reality.
Promote teacher agency by offering accessible and convenient professional development opportunities. Learn more about the K-12 Educator Learning Center.
Building a Sustainable Employee Culture of Well-Being
While the United States and other regions have certainly made progress on the cause for mental health acceptance, mental health research still cites a great need for destigmatization. An effective destigmatization campaign is one that removes the shame or disgrace from a lifestyle or condition, warmly inviting all experiences into the light without judgement, punishment, or social rejection. It is a collective effort that begins with leaders’ actions.
Destigmatization remains imperative to promoting collective staff well-being, because a positive working environment relies on a foundation that values acceptance and restorative practices. Furthermore, a supportive staff culture mitigates retention issues and increases positive student outcomes.
Districts should aim to promote a climate that values authenticity and self-care, while destigmatizing personal health matters, teacher burnout, and asking for help. These tips will not only help current district staff members comfortably stay in their role, but also boost your district’s employment reputation:
- Model authenticity by being the first to offer emotional vulnerability and allowing teachers to bring their personality, values, and culture to the workplace.
- Be aware of factors that lead to alienation and create a staff culture that invites new or isolated teachers into the school community.
- Encourage supervisors to conduct regular check-ins and give employees the choice of attending in-person, by phone, or video call.
What does it mean to be a trauma-informed leader? Learn more in our blog article, K-12 Trauma-Informed Resources for Coping with Tragedy and Loss.
Bolstering Collective K-12 Staff Well-Being to Promote Student Achievement
When writers and speakers explore the concept of self-care, they often mention a metaphor involving air travel safety: in the case of an emergency, caregivers are always instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before helping dependents. This analogy resonates with audiences because it emphasizes the importance of taking care of your own health so that you may help others. Likewise, educators cannot be expected to facilitate student achievement when they struggle to meet their own needs. In the 2023–24 academic year, district leaders may build a more supportive staff culture through regular check-ins, comprehensive tiered support frameworks, and messaging that rejects stigma.
Looking for additional ways to help prevent educator burnout? Learn more with our K-12 Staff Well-Being Check-in Toolkit