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What Teaching Staff Can Teach Us About Caring And Burnout

I recently had the pleasure of delivering an inset training day on employee well-being and engagement to a group of primary and secondary school teachers.

During the day we explored some interesting statistics as well as the challenges many teaching staff face.

  • On average across the UK, about 20% of working adults intend to quit their jobs at any one time.

  • A recent nationwide survey tells us that that's 30% higher with teachers with 50% intending to leave in the next 12 months.

Another report suggests that teachers work the most unpaid hours in any industry, a sentiment that is reflected by the teachers I was working with and teachers I know as friends.

Regardless of these statistics and challenges, the total number of teachers in the UK is over 450,000 totalling 20,000 more than there were in 2010.

So we know there is no lack of people wanting to be or become teachers in the UK, we're struggling to hold on to them.

I've come to understand that chronic stress, burnout and higher than average levels of turnover are prevalent in caring service-based industries such as teaching, healthcare and other public services such as the police.

Why is this?

Firstly, the caring people that go into these jobs genuinely care about their work and making a difference in the lives of others. They go into their careers with what most employers hope to enable in their employees, high levels of employee engagement. This means they aren't just there to get paid (they would go into a different industry if they were) they are there to deliver a service and will therefore go above and beyond to deliver that service.

This, of course, seems like a good thing. If I go to a restaurant and I can tell the wait staff are there just to get some pocket money and do the minimum required work, it's not going to add to my dining experience but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it either. If I go to the hospital it doesn't seem like the nurse or doctor is genuinely interested in helping me I'm going to suffer serious levels of worry just as I would experience a lot of stress if I felt my children's school teachers weren't genuinely interested in the children's education.

However, with high levels of engagement (that is employees genuinely caring), there also comes a significantly increased risk of burnout, especially in a caring service-based industry.

If I'm highly engaged in my job as a waiter, I'll work hard during my shifts, come up with ideas to make things better than they are already and maybe take on some overtime.

If I'm highly engaged as a teacher (as we've highlighted the vast majority of teachers will be hence why they go into the industry) I'll work hard during my school day... but I might also sacrifice my lunch break to give some extra support to a child, spend extra time on lesson plans and marking at home and sit on the school committee as a volunteer. Again these are all good things and acceptable in the short term, we all have to make sacrifices now and again for the greater good, but when this is chronic and it goes on for years all of those missed lunches and that voluntary overtime begin to take its toll. The teacher begins to feel like they have lost their spark. They might feel tired, no longer as motivated, moody, less creative, less patient, and less passionate. The irony of this is, that the early symptoms of burnout from overworking for too long because you are so engaged, are very similar to the behaviours of someone who doesn't really care about their job.

Next time you interact with a teacher, police officer or healthcare provider and they seem not interested ask yourself are they truly not interested or are they burnt out?.. If they genuinely didn't care about their job (and there are some) ask why they went into that industry? Why didn't they go into something easier and better paid?

There are of course lots of external factors that contribute to this situation. Teachers will be quick to highlight (and rightly so) the strain Ofsted's and always changing government-driven standards have on them. NHS staff can't control the amount of sickness we face, police can't control the amount of crime that is committed. Whilst all of these things are true, there are still lots of things passionate and caring employees can do to prevent or significantly reduce the likelihood of burnout - here are my top 4 tips:

1) Be sensibly selfish

Here we work on challenging our psychology. When we are high in caring and empathy our natural tendency is to put others people's needs before our own. We don't want to change this about ourselves, the world needs caring people. But as we've discussed the world can't deal with losing vast amounts of its caring people to chronic stress and burnout. Therefore you have to remind yourself regularly that it's ok to be sensibly selfish. It's ok to make time for yourself and your health, even at the expense of others so that you can be your best self. For you to live as long as possible being your best self for as long as possible, you have to make time to look after yourself and what you enjoy. The likelihood of you actually doing those things largely comes down to planning, which leads to our next point.

2) Plan for Perfect - Accept it doesn't happen

Neuroscience tells us that when we write things down we're 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to do them. Whenever I work with professionals on work-life balance I get them to write down the things they would like to do yearly, monthly, weekly and daily to be the person they want to be. I then get them to plan out a week and try to plan in where those things fit. Whether they go and print that off and put it on the wall or not, it still increases the likelihood of them doing things significantly higher. Because the brain has gone through the process of planning those things it not only has an idea of when they should happen but also accepts that there is time for them to happen. When we've been working too hard for months or years and we're tired, we begin to tell ourselves there's no time to do the things that matter.. which leads to us believing this.. which leads to us not planning the time to do these things.. which leads to us either working more or wasting that time we do have.

3) Learn to challenge or say no

Any organisation or business will always generate more work than could ever possibly be done. There's always more money to be made, more customers to be satisfied, and higher levels of service to develop. When we combine this situation with an employee base of caring people that want to do a great job it can lead to a perfect storm of sorts. The caring teacher for example, not only wants to do a great job for the children, but they also want to do a great job for the school. They're more than willing to work overtime for the student and take on more and more work for the school. What this can and usually does lead to, in simple terms, is saying yes to too much. I'm not suggesting that all teachers, nurses and other service workers start saying no to everything, but certainly start to explore saying no and constructively challenging things that come down but don't seem to work for you. We have to be aware of problems to challenge them. The early we intervene in problems, the easier they are to solve. Caring workers tend to work too hard for too long without saying anything until it's already a big problem. I think this is true on an individual level (i.e. a teacher) and a wider level (i.e. all teachers).

I'm not trying to oversimplify the challenges here or imply that leadership and government bodies don't have any/significant responsibility in these areas, but I am highlighting that there is lots the worker can do.

Caring deeply about what you do is good for you, good for the people you serve and good for our wider society. I hope this post helps you stop that passion from turning into burnout, therefore, remaining in your life as a constant stream of energy and purpose enabling you to live your best life and positively impact the lives of others for years to come.

Author: Mike Jones

After suffering Burnout in his first business, Mike founded Better Happy in 2018 with the vision of 'Enabling organisations & employees to thrive together'.

Mike writes, consults and delivers training days on everything health and performance at work.


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