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Blog 1, April 2020. Burnout in teaching: a problem that is widely recognised but poorly understood


Rachel Mathieson, Chris Forde, Judith Hanks, University of Leeds

April 2020

There is growing media and policy interest in well-being and burnout in the teaching profession. For example, teachers have been found to be more likely to experience work-related stress than other professionals, and the proportion of teachers leaving the profession or moving school is on the increase . Funded by the ESRC  Impact Acceleration Account, through the Leeds Social Sciences Institute , and working jointly with the NASUWT  and NEU  teaching unions, we have been exploring burnout in teaching, and looking to co-produce solutions. We held a series of roundtable meetings, hosted by the School of Education  and the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change  at the University of Leeds  in summer 2019 with teachers, school leaders, and teacher union representatives, to get their perspectives on what factors lie behind the statistics.

The emphasis in the stakeholder meetings was on listening to participants, and on gathering their insights on issues important to them, rather than imposing a set of themes in advance, thus embedding impact from the start. This summary is designed to generate further discussion of these themes and issues through a second set of stakeholder events taking place in Spring 2020. A more detailed briefing note on the issues covered can be found here .

The term ‘burnout’ meant different things to different participants; some people disliked the term, because, they felt, it carried connotations of a lack of personal resilience, which shifts blame onto the shoulders of the individual. Teachers told us they had felt ‘broken’, ‘desiccated’, and ‘overworked’.

    The ‘sticking plaster’ initiatives – staffroom treats, yoga sessions – which have been introduced to mitigate the surface symptoms of burnout are doing little to solve the underlying causes of burnout, which our participants identified as excessive workload, particularly where tasks are considered irrelevant to children’s learning, toxic workplace cultures, lack of management support with difficult pupil behaviour, high-stakes accountability mechanisms, and badly handled performance management.

Department for Education  initiatives such as the Workload Reduction Toolkit , albeit recognising that there is a problem, seem to have had little effect on the ground. The impact of high workload is often exacerbated by unrealistic expectations of management, including tight turnaround times and deadlines, as well as by budget cuts and reduced resources, including the removal of teaching assistants and administrative staff.

Teacher agency and professionalism are felt to have been eroded. Teachers told us they felt they were teaching to the test, under pressure to hit externally-imposed targets, and were not trusted to make decisions about their own pedagogy. They also expressed concerns that they no longer had time or space to provide effective pastoral care to their pupils, and that the developing demarcation of teachers delivering the curriculum and other designated staff managing pastoral support left them unable to develop the relationships with pupils which are necessary for learning to take place.

The personal impact on teachers is significant. Teachers told us the effects of these struggles on their own mental health: they described their experiences as “hell”, “walking around in a fog”, “sunk”, and said they had blamed themselves. Those who had left the profession described themselves as being “in recovery”. Others moved to different jobs, or found teaching jobs in different institutions where they felt more supported.

Senior leaders, teachers and union officials all recognised that good practice in schools and colleges was dependent on the capabilities, skills and approaches of individual headteachers and senior managers. Where there is good practice, turnover is greatly reduced, staffing is more stable, teachers can develop their professional practice, schools can make a greater contribution to their communities, and all these benefits have a positive effect on the children.

Our project is funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, through the Leeds Social Science Institute

Read a fuller briefing note here