Watch out for burnout

Diana Monteiro
Watch out for burnoutIt was 1 a.m. when Kamala finally finished correcting the unit test papers. By this time, her family had been in bed for several hours but she was still not done preparing for her classes in the morning. The familiar dread of waking up and dealing with her life settled in her stomach. After a restless night, she woke up late the next morning, prepared breakfast and lunch for the family and made sure her children were ready for school, her husband got his lunch box and her in-laws had their breakfast before she rushed out of home, just in time for school. Once again, she wished she could take a long break and not have any responsibilities, but felt guilty about wanting to run away from everything…

Burnout is the phenomenon consisting of physical and mental exhaustion experienced in daily life because of being overworked. It has been defined as “A syndrome that goes beyond physical fatigue from overwork. Stress and emotional exhaustion are part of it, but the hallmark of burnout is the distancing that goes on in response to the overload.” (Christina Maslach)

As the example shows, Kamala is experiencing several symptoms of burnout. Can you recognise any of these symptoms in yourself?

Are you on the verge?
How can you tell whether you are on the verge of a burnout or have been there for a while? Burnout can be recognised by its many psychological and physical symptoms. Physical symptoms include fatigue, exhaustion, feeling tired, frequent illness (colds, headaches, aches and pains), high blood pressure and gastro-intestinal problems. Psychological symptoms include frequent mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, feelings of guilt and blame, discouragement, anger, conflict in interpersonal relationships and many other psychological problems. In addition, appetite disturbances, weight changes and sleep disturbances accompany the burnout syndrome. Individuals experiencing burnout may also experience differences in their attitude towards work. Their overall satisfaction with work lessens and the importance given to work changes significantly.

Researchers (Girdin, Everly & Dusek, 1996) suggest three stages in the burnout process, namely, Stress arousal, Energy conservation, and Exhaustion. Stage 1 (Stress arousal) includes persistent irritability and anxiety, sleep difficulties, bruxism (teeth grinding), headaches, and problems with concentration and attention. These are common symptoms of stress that individuals often experience and teachers are more susceptible to stress given their interactions with children who are constantly demanding of their time and attention. Stage 2 (Energy conservation) includes feelings of resentfulness and a cynical attitude, procrastination, apathy, persistent fatigue, and increased use of substances (caffeine, alcohol) to manage daily life chores. This stage also involves social withdrawal and indifference towards work and life. Stage 3 (Exhaustion) includes chronic feelings of mental and physical fatigue that do not get better with brief rest, depression, persistent health problems and feelings of wanting to move away from friends, family and everyone. Often people in this stage can experience thoughts of suicide.

While these stages are sequential, any stage can be stopped with appropriate intervention. Unfortunately, most people realise something is wrong only when they are in the third stage, where, immediate treatment/help is necessary.

Burnout in teachers
Teachers and educators often face a unique combination of stressors that can cause them to experience burnout. While they are often faced with the common problems of everyday life, teachers also have additional responsibilities related to demands being placed on them each school year. New textbooks, new students, changing schedules, dealing with a unique population of individuals (young children, adolescents) each with their own developmental troubles, all add up to a sometimes deadly mixture of burnout syndrome for teachers. The helping professions have long known to be significantly impacted by the burnout rate among professionals. Teachers have the unique responsibility of ensuring the well-being and development of their wards. This responsibility can become a huge liability, when mixed with poor funding, limited control, marginal working conditions and unreasonable demands, leading teachers to live in a state of chronic stress that eventually leads to burnout. (Dworkin, 1987)

Interestingly, teachers who are good at what they do and enjoy their work are often the most susceptible to burnout. Teachers who enjoy their work often overwork and over time, begin to derive less meaning from their work as the stress of overworking begins to affect them.

Causes of burnout
Eminent psychologist, Gerald Corey suggests many reasons for burnout among professionals. Individual factors, in combination with interpersonal demands and organisational issues contribute towards burnout. Corey outlines several causes that lead to burnout.

  • Repetitive, tedious work with little or no variation.
  • Lack of appreciation and meaning in the work.
  • Performance pressures which are unreasonable.
  • Working with difficult populations (eg. Adolescent students, students with disabilities).
  • Conflict at work and absence of supportive networks.
  • Critical supervisors and lack of trust between management and staff.
  • No opportunity for movement within the organisation or a lack of continuing training opportunities.
  • Personal life conflicts like marital problems, health concerns, financial trouble, relationship difficulties, etc.

How to avoid burnout and return to a healthy life
Everyone is susceptible to burnout, since it is linked to how a person manages his/her daily life stressors. If you are not in the burnout cycle, it is best to start with living a healthy lifestyle. Teaching can easily become stressful and unmanageable if the pressures of work and life become too much to handle. Thus, following a healthy schedule can often prevent burnout.

Firstly, it is important to increase one’s awareness of current life stressors. Life without stress is called death and life with too much stress can lead one to death. Therefore, recognise that stress is an important part of our functional life and managing it is crucial to our survival. To manage stress, a few of “grandma’s basic rules for life” should be followed.

  • Sleep for at least 7-8 hours per night. Sleep refreshes our minds and our bodies allowing us to feel rejuvenated. Gross deficits are apparent only after 2 hours of less sleep in one night or 5 hours or less in two successive nights. Impairment in dealing with more complex tasks especially those involving the acquisition and integration of new material becomes most noticeable as sleep drops below 6 hours.
  • Eat healthy and regularly include essential foods in your diet.
  • Exercise daily for at least 30 minutes. Most people find this difficult to do given their busy schedules. If the choice is between doing nothing and moving for at least 10 minutes, start with 10 minutes a day. Exercise of any kind boosts endorphins in the brain, which are better known as the happy chemicals, which keeps life stress manageable.
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs, which can enhance mood in the short term, but have long term depressive effects on the central nervous system. In addition, using alcohol to cope with difficult situations often leads to addictive use, which leads to more problems than it solves.
  • Avoid isolation and use your social support networks to help you through difficult times. Social isolation leads to various psychological problems and having someone to talk to, about your problems is always beneficial.

Avoid Burnout
As a teacher, managing stress can be a challenge. Some tips to help manage stress, specifically for teachers include:

  • Leave “teaching” to school only and try not to bring work home often.
    Pursue a hobby that is unrelated to your school work.
  • Keep a to-do list to manage the competing demands placed on your time.
  • Accept that you can’t do everything and that you have limitations.
  • Learn to plan and prioritise.
  • Increase your tolerance by understanding others and learn to manage your feelings of frustration and anger. Exercise helps in managing negative feelings!

If you are already on your way to a burnout, start by managing your current life stressors. In addition, Judy Downs Lombardi in her article ‘Do you have teacher burnout’ suggests the following to manage existing burnout.

  • Find new ways to do old things. Be creative with the way you teach and allow your imagination to do new things.
  • Challenge yourself to keep learning. Seek out resources that make your job fun and exciting for you to keep doing.
  • Collaborate with your colleagues to help you manage/enhance your work.
  • Change grade levels that you are teaching.
  • Allow for your own imperfections and recognise that you cannot change every student’s life.
  • Care for yourself as a person and nurture yourself. Conserve and replenish your psychological resources (emotional/physical) and be good to yourself.
  • Explore other ways you can work within the profession.

In addition,

  • Seek professional help if you’ve felt burned out for a long time and have not been feeling better.
  • Do what you love and love what you do, but with limits.
  • Spirituality and religiousness can be helpful coping strategies at all times.

To summarise, burnout among teachers is a common phenomenon that affects a large segment of the teaching population. Burnout has been linked to overworking and an inability to manage the stress of daily life. In order to live a healthy life, learning good stress management techniques, working within limits, and following the basic rules of eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep and using social support networks can prevent burnout.

Recognising burnout in yourself

Answer the following questions to see whether you have any of the symptoms of burnout.

Burnout Measure: Short Version (Malach-Pines, 2005)

Please use the following scale to answer the question:
never – 1                                        often – 5
almost never – 2                          very often – 6
rarely – 3                                        always – 7
sometimes – 4

When you think about your work overall, how often do you feel the following?
Tired Physically weak/Sickly
Hopeless Worthless/Like a failure
Trapped Helpless
Depressed Difficulties sleeping
“I’ve had it” Disappointed with people

In order to calculate your burnout score add your responses to the 10 items and divide by 10.

A score up to 2.4 indicates a very low level of burnout;
A score between 2.5 and 3.4 indicates danger signs of burnout;
A score between 3.5 and 4.4 indicates burnout;
A score between 4.5 and 5.4 indicates a very serious problem of burnout;
A score of 5.5 requires immediate professional help.

The author is a Counseling Psychologist and Director, The Hyderabad Academy of Psychology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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