Professional burnout has been studied for decades and was recognised by the World Health Organisation as a chronic syndrome. Dr Christina Maslech, is one of the world's leading researchers, professors and speakers on the subject of burnout. In her speech at DOES in 2018, she described how the term burnout may have originated from engineers. One example she used was the way that ball bearings burn out from being in an abrasive environment with no oil. One cause of burnout through a human resources lens could be the way some companies view employees as being in a sprint while employees are viewing their work as a marathon. Being fascinated by both of these metaphors, I wanted to explore how they apply, and what solutions can be found, within the TEFL industry.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation defined burnout as "a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". There are three key symptoms to burnout which are feelings of exhaustion, cynicism (distancing from one's job) and reduced professional effectiveness. Burnout can affect other areas of life but the root cause is always related to occupation. Some of the common ways I have observed chronic workplace stress affecting teachers are the pressure from teaching large classes of students, ever increasing demands of the parents, feeling unsupported by their school or company, lack of recognition and value for their ideas and performance, having a heavy workload of classes without adequate reward or compensation, and being constantly on edge waiting for plans or events to change at the last minute.
According to Dr Maslech's research, there are six key strategic areas of job-person fit that should be considered in the conversation around teacher burnout. They are workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values. In TEFL, there are a variety of teaching environments with varying requirements in each of these areas. While workload, reward or compensation and fairness are obvious and measurable factors, I have observed that control or autonomy, community and values are often overlooked. Teachers who feel that they have no control over their classes, lesson plans or work they are contributing often feel like their ideas are not valuable. This can be combined with a lack of community if their voice is made irrelevant by their partner teacher, team or leader. And, when their personal values are out of alignment with the school's values (or they aren't clear on what those are) it creates insecurity and uncertainty about their place. As mentioned previously, this can go on to affect their life outside of work, and this often directly affects their sense of belonging and even their identity.
Oftentimes, teachers ignore their internal resistance from these scenarios because they feel that it's "just part of the job". While this may be true, it forces the teachers to become like the ball bearings in the metaphor described earlier. If the school or company is the abrasive environment, then the oil required is the release of pressure or peace of mind which the teacher experiences. Maslech described the effects on the human ranging from disruptions of personal life, physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, long-term stress and health problems, loss of self-worth and meaningful achievements, anxiety, burnout, depression, and in extreme cases even suicide.
These factors affect professional effectiveness so it is in the best interests of the teachers, their students, and the schools for teachers to have access to support to address the issue of burnout in education. Unfortunately, I have observed that many of the corporate training centres and leaders in the TEFL industry have a belief that teachers are replaceable. The ones who burn out are those who “can't stand the heat, so they should just get out of the kitchen”. This However, this is not an effective long-term business model. Rather, this creates a toxic work environment where job security, support and control are very low while the workload demands increase. This shifts the problem to the teacher without dealing with the root cause, which often saves the company management from having to accept any responsibility.
Of course, it would be fantastic if the abrasive environment that is the TEFL industry were to start valuing their humans as their most precious resources. Unfortunately, as teachers, that’s not something we have a lot of control over which often leads to further frustrations. And I have seen those frustrations, more often that not, develop into a negative attitude towards an entire country. This then begins to erode at the very core of our identity, forcing us to question our belonging in a society that doesn’t welcome us, to go home to a society now estranged from us, or to leave for a other environment only to start from square one and find it’s a different flavour of the same sandwich.
However, there is something that is within our control. It’s not easy, but when we begin to look at the internal environment we can choose to learn the skills to metaphorically apply the oil. This is the point where many teachers reach out to me; I call it “I know I need things to change but I don’t know how”. It starts by disconnecting from work. Being engaged in the teaching profession is not just about the way we show up to the classroom. Time is also required for planning lessons, preparing materials, communicating with parents and so much more. This is why taking time to actually step away and disconnect from work allows your brain to take a breather and relax. I highly recommend using the STOP tool at the end of a working day. STEP back, THINK about your win for today, ORGANISE your thoughts for tomorrow and then PROCEED to turn off the lights and move on with your life outside of work.
There also needs to be a clear distinction between what is acceptable and what is not. And, we need to be able to communicate these boundaries clearly and assertively. As this links to many other areas of life, this can be highly sensitive and triggering.
Disclaimer: If you feel like this could be you, I recommend having a trusted, non-judgemental person listen as you work through boundary setting. It could be a friend or family member or a therapist. I am not a trauma specialist and I am not a trained medical or mental health professional.
However, as a coach, I work with my clients to highlight and draw out the skills that help them to overcome the overwhelm. We talk about the fears holding them back, we explore their limiting beliefs and we weigh up the consequences of their choices. As a result, my clients often walk away with increased awareness, confidence, and hope. They learn to develop better coping mechanisms, stronger resiliency and stress management skills that they can continue to use to combat stress leading to burnout for the rest of their lives.
So, the solution to the burnout problem? Disconnect from work, set clear boundaries, know what you want, and use the tools and resources available to you, like coaching. In exploring burnout, sometimes we realise what's required is a total career change. Sometimes it’s a location change. Sometimes it’s a lifestyle change. But without first stepping back and acknowledging that the problem exists in the first place, we can’t begin to manage it and move on.