By: Neil Thomas
In July 2020, my wife and I said goodbye to our home for the last nine years. We had enjoyed every moment of our experience in Doha, but the time had come to return home to the UK.
So, why would I decide to leave one of the World’s leading schools?
BURNOUT is the reason why.
So, what exactly is burnout?
Since 2019, when it was reclassified by the WHO, it is said that:
“Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Following my experience of burnout and sharing it on the Teach Middle East Podcast (https://teachmiddleeastmag.com/talking-teacher-burnout-with-neil-thomas/), I often get asked how teachers can recognise if what they are experiencing could be burnout.
My first bit of advice here is to recognise that you need to be self-aware of your situation. Everyone’s position will be slightly different regarding what is causing you to feel the way you do.
Understanding your own basic needs in what makes you less stressed during a working day is a good start. Is it getting in early to be prepared? Is it ensuring you go for a cup of tea every break time?
You might also want to identify some coping mechanisms, such as having a strong morning routine or deleting your work email system from your mobile device, so you are ‘away’ from work when you walk out the door at 3:30 pm. Setting up boundaries between home and work is essential, but evermore difficult since the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of us to work from home.
The difference between Burnout and Stress
The second aspect of understanding if you are heading towards burnout is understanding the difference between burnout and stress.
The difference between these two terms was explained to me by Katie Phillips of KDP Coaching and Consulting (https://www.kdp.coach/). Katie, who has been through burn out herself (albeit in a different industry), identifies that stress is generally about things feeling too much. Stress is often caused by too many pressures that demand too much of us physically and mentally. This is often the feeling we can get as a teacher in the middle of a term, and you may feel like you are drowning with the list of things that need to get done.
A key indicator of whether you are feeling stressed or burnt out is to identify whether you can imagine the endpoint and, once you get things under control, you know you will feel better. Within our profession, this often ties in with you getting to the end of a half-term, knowing that you will have a one- or two-week holiday to relax and, ultimately, get on top of things before starting the new term, fresh.
Burnout is significantly different.
When you are burnt out, you feel that whatever you do is not enough. Burnout leaves you feeling empty inside and often devoid of any motivation for something that you once loved. This was certainly the case for me.
I had loved every moment of my 14-year teaching career until January 2020, but suddenly I didn’t want to go to work, I didn’t want to attend meetings, I didn’t care, and I constantly had a high level of anxiousness. I was mentally and physically exhausted. This exhaustion wiped me out, I was no good to anyone, if I’m honest, and was constantly on the verge of crying. Looking back on pictures of me during this time, I looked pale, withdrawn and not very well.
The critical point for me in identifying that I was burnt out, as opposed to stressed, was that I didn’t have any hope within my work context and couldn’t see the situation changing for the better. In February 2020, and after many conversations with my supportive Principal, Dr Steffen Sommer, and my family, I decided I needed to leave Doha College for the sake of my mental health.
Looking back, there were a number of signals that my body was giving me signals that I was burning out before I broke down in a meeting with Steffen.
Burnout signs felt like:
- Inexplicable tiredness
- Constant aches and pains
- Twitching in my eyes
- Trouble sleeping
- Constant dread about opening emails, messages or interacting with colleagues
Burnout signs looked like this:
- Little patience
- Over socialising / Withdrawing
- Undereating / Overeating
- Breakouts and skin complaints
Burnout signs sounded like:
- “Everyone thinks I’m useless.”
- “I’m too [insert every innate personality trait I have].”
- “I’m going to be fired.”
- “I don’t belong here.”
- “Taking a break looks lazy.”
What can teachers do to remedy burnout?
If you think that you might be heading towards burnout, it will be essential to give yourself plenty of self-compassion. Be kind to yourself, ensure you rest. Speak to someone. Whether it is sharing it with a friend or sharing your concerns with your line manager, speaking about it will help.
Rest is a crucial part of the equation. If you need to take time off to help you rest, then you need to take it. If you try to out-run burnout, it will not end well, as I found out to the detriment of my physical and mental health. If you broke your leg on the weekend, would you be at work the following week? Probably not. The difficulty with mental health issues is that they are invisible, and the only person who can see them is you. Do not be afraid to flag your problems with your management team.
Always seek professional help should you not feel anything is changing – I did, and it helped me significantly.
What can schools do to help their staff with burnout?
Employers have a duty of care for their people. At this current time, it is more important than ever for school leaders to look after the wellbeing of their staff and themselves as senior leaders. I would suggest that school leaders could look at the following areas to improve staff wellbeing:
- Build awareness of mental health issues such as burnout and stress within your staff. Awareness becomes before prevention and highlighting what can cause it and giving everyone a common understanding is a great start.
- Sharing stories of burnout or stress as a leader will help to remove the stigma that surrounds the two terms with staff.
- Review of events and their IMPACT – What events in the school calendar have the biggest impact on students? If any events in the calendar have little or no impact on the students at your school – do you need them? Will this elevate some pressure on your staff?
- Lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic – Are there aspects of running your school during the recent Covid-19 pandemic that can remove pressure from staff? Shifting parents’ evenings to online parent meetings for example.
- Inset days – Do all of your inset days need to be used for staff development? Can at least one be used as a staff wellbeing day?
- Be supportive – Leaders are not there to diagnose or be a therapist but being a signpost to what resources or services are available is important. Being open to making changes to the way your staff work can really be the difference between happy and engaged or frazzled and burnt out.
Burnout is a topic that has wide-reaching consequences. Whether you are a school leader wondering what more you can do to support staff wellbeing or someone who might be experiencing high levels of stress or worry that you might be heading towards burnout, it is essential, in both situations, to put the PERSON at the centre of the process.
Phillips, K.D., 2020. ‘Burnout Prevention: How to support yourself and your team’. KDP Consulting and Consulting. 1 September. Available at: https://www.kdp.coach/burnout-prevention/ (Accessed: 27 February).
Phillips, K.D., 2020. ‘How to spot the signs and understand the causes of Burnout’. KDP Consulting and Consulting. 1 September. Available at: https://www.kdp.coach/burnout-signs-causes/ (Accessed: 27 February).
World Health Organisation, 2019. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. Available at: https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases (Accessed: 27 February).
Neil Thomas is a teacher with over 14 years of teaching and leadership experience both in the UK and internationally and is now working as an educational consultant. Having been affected by burnout, Neil decided to return to the UK to find a better work-life balance and recuperate both mentally and physically.