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Causes of Burnout

Working in schools can be difficult and demanding, especially in uncertain times. After all, we work with people all day and we all know they can at times be unpredictable.

It is helpful for leaders to be aware of the following causes of burnout. The following list of seven from are useful for leaders to reflect upon. I have added a school perspective to each for leaders in schools to consider.

  • Unclear job expectations or moving targets

Staff in many schools complain about constant change and moving ‘goals posts’. There are many competing priorities in schools and almost everything can be argued to be ‘important’. How can we as leaders simplify and clarify what is important and needs to be a consistent priority?

  • A conveyor belt of work with no sense of achievement

Our work in schools can appear to be never ending. There is always more that could be done. More planning to be done, more lessons to prepare, more work to mark, more research to be done, more students that need extra attention. This can lead to a sense that our work is never ending. We seldom get the satisfaction that a tradie gets at the end of their day, when they can see what they have achieved at the end of the day. Working in schools it can be much harder to see what we have achieved at the end of each day or even each week.

Most educators are not very good at celebrating our successes. We are often quick to dismiss appreciation and eager to move on to identify the next problem or issue that needs to be fixed. Occasionally we should take more time to “smell the daisies”.

  • Unhealthy workplace dynamics – such as perceived unfairness, bullying, discrimination or a lack of opportunity

The number one factor in staff morale is leadership. If staff perceive that they aren’t being treated fairly, that there is an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd, they will quickly become cynical of all leadership decisions. The behaviours of leaders can be interpreted differently. Staff see a behaviour or a decision that is made and make an assumption about the reason or intent behind the behaviour or decision. If they assume that the behaviour or decision is well intended they are more likely to engage. However, if they assume the leaders intent is not in their interest then they are likely to disengage or sabotage. The perceived intent is very powerful but can also be self-fulfilling. If they perceive unfairness they will presume that across other decisions too.

  • Lack of support or recognition

Staff don’t care how busy leaders are, they care how busy (and supported) they are. Whilst leaders have many pressing demands placed upon them, it is vital that leaders DO NOT disconnect from their staff. It is essential that leaders are visible and present WITH staff, in the classroom, in the playground, during professional development sessions etc.

The most powerful form of praise or recognition is specific and immediate. Saying thank you to staff at the end of the term is important but the best recognition and appreciation is specific to the individual and immediate. To provide such recognition you need to be present and connected.

Whenever I hear leaders talking about “them”, I get worried about the school culture. I am a great believer in Blanchard’s theory of Servant Leadership. The main job of leaders in schools is to support staff in the classroom to do their very best work. In the classroom is where the magic happens. How much time have you spent in classrooms this term?

  • Work-life imbalances

School terms can be very intense but are also predictable. It is almost inevitable that we will be running low on reserves as we come to the end of each term. It is vital that we implement strategies that allow us to disconnect from work and recharge our batteries, both on weekends and on school holidays.

What amounts to balance is a personal and individualized thing. What works for one person, may not be right for another. There isn’t a one size fits all answer.

  • Monotonous work

There is no chance that staff in schools are likely to be bored from monotonous work. No two days are alike, working with people can be unpredictable and some crazy stuff happens in schools.

  • Lack of mental wellness practices: insufficient sleep, breaks, diet, exercise etc

Fixing staff well-being is NOT the job of leaders. It is vital that staff make good choices that look after their own well-being.

Schools that are members of our Happy School program realise that the articles are designed to provide small doses of professional development that empower staff to make good choices that support their own well-being.