Harry Fletcher-Wood reviews recent findings on the causes and consequences of burnout, and effective strategies for its prevention

According to the World Health Organisation, people who suffer burnout lack energy, feel greater distance or cynicism about their job and are less professionally effective. Left unchecked, burnout can cause disaffection and lead teachers to quit their current schools, or the profession altogether.  So, with teachers under pressure every day, and schools under pressure to retain them, what can research suggest about preventing burnout?

One interesting study focused on healthcare workers: at the end of each working day, they were asked to record three things that had gone well and why they had happened.  Participants shared reflections on their mastery, “Today was my first day as ‘lead’ and others wanted to let me know that they knew I could do it”, the purpose they found in their work “I take a lot of pride in the work I do!” and on the social support they had “My husband texted me to let me know he loves me and that he hopes I have a good day at work”.

Researchers found that asking them to record these reflections led to “lowered stress, decreased physical and mental complaints, and improved detachment from work in the evening”, while also reducing family-work conflict in the evenings.

The approach had positive effects across different workplaces – it helped wherever healthcare professionals were practising. The study concludes that reducing negative pressures is important in work, but notes that “positive daily experiences at work, such as socializing, positive feedback, and goal accomplishment, relate directly to reduced stress and improved health”.

A second study, conducted by Elizabeth Linos and her colleagues, focused on developing a supportive professional culture among emergency service call handlers. Over six weeks, they received weekly emails inviting them to share professional experiences on specific themes and to read stories others had shared.

Six months after the trial ended, participants reported significantly lower burnout

For example, one prompt asked participants to “think about a co-worker that you think would be (or already is!) a great mentor for a new recruit. Please let us know who you would recommend as a mentor and why.” One response – shared in a subsequent email – described a colleague who “Doesn’t take things personally [and] remains courteous and patient with difficult callers as well as all callers”.

These stories emphasised their “potential impact on their peers”, with the aim of building a “sense of social support among dispatchers and a stronger collective professional identity”. And the trial seemed to work: six months after it ended, participants reported significantly lower burnout, and were less likely to have resigned than a control group.

Finally, a recent article for the Harvard Business Review suggests that “Leaders could save themselves a huge amount of employee stress and subsequent burnout” by better understanding what their colleagues need.

She quotes a leading expert on burnout who has “witnessed hospital CEOs walking the floor only to realise why people keep asking for, say, a new printer. They see that because the existing one is always breaking down and never serviced, it rarely has paper. So when someone wants to print out something for a patient, they are forced to run down the hall and get somebody to help or to find a printer that works. It’s hard for leadership to then ignore needs after witnessing them first-hand.”

Author Jennifer Moss argues that, while we “tend to think of burnout as an individual problem”, the responsibility really lies “away from the individual and towards the organisation. Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy.” The root causes of burnout lie in the pressure employees are under and the support they receive at work, and both are directly affected by leadership culture.

These studies offer promising approaches to reduce burnout and increase teacher retention. Success relies on closing the gap in experience between leaders and their staff, creating opportunities for peers to recognise one another’s achievements, and helping individuals to recognise the positives in their daily experience.