Teacher Burnout: Challenges in K-12 and Higher Education

Teacher Burnout: Challenges in K-12 and Higher Education
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Burnout is simply the “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation,” usually resulting from prolonged stress or frustration and other factors (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). It can also be defined as “the accumulation of responses to extended stressors caused by one’s job; characteristics of burnout are emotional exhaustion, cynicism (depersonalization), and low levels of self-efficacy” (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001).

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2019 updated definition of burnout is as follows: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy” (WHO, 2019).

This article will discuss the prevalence of burnout among K-12 and university teachers, how burnout is measured and analyzed, particularly using the Maslach scale constructed and tested by Dr.  Christina Maslach, the effects and predictors of burnout, intervention methods, and recommended future studies. By understanding teacher burnout, schools in the U.S. and worldwide are more empowered to take the necessary steps to address it.

Teacher Burnout Table of Contents

  1. Burnout–Prevalence in K-12 and University Teaching
  2. Standardized Measures of Burnout
  3. Effects of Teacher Burnout
  4. Factors Affecting Burnout
  5. Predictors of Burnout
  6. Intervention Methods
  7. Teacher Burnout – Future Studies

Burnout–Prevalence in K-12 and University Teaching

In the United States, 44% of teachers in K-12 education said they very often or always feel burned out at work, while for college or university teachers, the figure was 35%. These are the top two occupations among 14 listed in the 2022 Gallup Poll on occupational burnout. Very telling is that female teachers (55%) are especially burned out compared to male teachers (44%). (Marken and Agrawal, 2022). This is a fact of our modern world – K12 and university teaching are the top jobs with the highest burnout rates in the US!

Burnout seems to be prevalent no matter what field we look at. In a study comparing burnout across fields of knowledge, 36.6% of faculty members (n = 127) suffered from burnout, with men having significantly higher scores of quality of life than women in the domains of physical health (p = 0.001; d<0.5), psychological (p = 0.001; d<0.5) and social relationships (p = 0.048; d<0.5). Overall, women were more exhausted than men (p = 0.001; d<0.5).  However, the faculty members’ perception of quality of life and burnout did not differ across their fields of knowledge (p>0.05) (Alves, et al, 2019).

Source: Alves, et al, 2019

Teachers bear the brunt of criticism in the modern era of social media and helicopter parenting. They face enormous pressure from parents, students, and the public to pass students or increase student outcomes, while in many cases receiving fewer resources (Herman, et al, 2018). No wonder burnout is so prevalent in the teaching profession.

Standardized Measures of Burnout

The very popular and perhaps the gold standard for measuring the various components of burnout syndrome is the Maslach Scale (Maslach and Jackson 1981), constructed and tested by Dr.  Christina Maslach. The scale has both high reliability and validity as a measure of burnout. In this scale, the three major subscales affecting burnout are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. (Maslach and Jackson 1981).

The three subscales are explained as follows:

  • The Emotional Exhaustion subscale refers to feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work.
  • The Depersonalization subscale describes an impersonal response towards the recipients of one’s care or service.
  • The Personal Accomplishment subscale describes feelings of competence and achievement in one’s work with people (Maslach and Jackson 1981).

A newer assessment tool called the Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT)  centers on four core dimensions (exhaustion, mental distance, emotional impairment, and cognitive impairment) and three secondary dimensions (depressed mood, psychological distress, and psychosomatic complaints) (Schaufeli, et al 2020).  Tested on 1,500 Flemish employees, there is sufficient evidence for the tool’s factorial validity, reliability, and construct validity.

Another new test is the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory-Brazilian version (CBI-Br) (Rocha, et al, 2020). The test was administered to university professors and academic staff members of Brazilian public universities (n=676 ) and confirmatory factor analysis results supported a three-factor model with 18 items and an acceptable overall fit (Rocha, et al, 2020).

The table below lists some common burnout test instruments as compiled by Schaufeli, et al, (2020).

Common Burnout Test Instruments

Name of testAbbreviationReference
4-Dimensional Questionnaire4-DSQTerluin, van Marwijk et al., 2006
Bergen Burnout InventoryBBISalmela-Aro, Rantanen, Hyvönen, Tilleman, and Feldt, 2011
Boudreau Burnout QuestionnaireBBQBoudreau, Cahoon and Wedel, 2006
Burnout MeasureBMPines and Aronson, 1981
BurnOut-Neuratshenia Complaints ScaleBONKSVerbraak, van de Griendt and Hoogduin, 2006
Copenhagen Burnout InventoryCBIKristensen, Borritz, Villadsen, and Christensen, 2005
Granada Burnout QuestionnaireGBQDe la Fuente, et al, 2013
Hamburg Burnout InventoryHBIBurisch, 2017
Instrument for the early detection of burnout-FOD, 2017
Oldenburg Burnout InventoryOLBIDemerouti, Bakker, Vardakou and Kantas, 2003
Shirom Melamed Burnout MeasureSMBMShirom and Melamed, 2006
Spanish Burnout InventorySBIGil-Monte and Faúndez, 2011
(Schaufeli, et al, 2020).

Effects of Teacher Burnout

Mental effects

Mental exhaustion, depression, and distress are a few of the most often-cited mental effects of burnout.  Burnout has a negative association with quality of life (λ = 0.87; p < 0,001; df = 8) (Alves, et al, 2019).

Physical / Somatic and Psychosomatic Effects

Aside from the mental effects of burnout, people can also be affected physically in psychosomatic ways, and symptoms include palpitations or chest pain, stomach and/or intestinal complaints, headaches, neck, shoulder, or back muscle pain, and often getting sick (Schaufeli, et al 2020), among others.  This results in lost productivity and lost time in fulfilling one’s teaching and teaching-related duties and functions.

Quality of life

Obviously, burnout lowers the quality of life significantly. For example, those who felt tired before arriving at work did not have a good quality of life (OR = 0.46; 95% CI = 0.21–0.99), and faculty members who needed more time to relax after work were less likely to be satisfied with their health (OR = 0.20; 95% CI = 0.10–0.40) (Alves, et al, 2019).

Teacher attrition

Teacher attrition, the tendency of teachers to quit their jobs or their profession entirely, is strongly correlated with burnout and is a big concern for schools and policymakers in many countries (Madigan and Kim, 2021a).

In a first meta-analytic examination of burnout and teachers’ intentions to quit, results showed that the three dimensions of burnout (exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced accomplishment) had significant positive relationships with teachers’ intentions to quit, increasing over time. Burnout and job satisfaction together explained 27% of the variance in teachers’ intentions to quit, and that burnout symptoms accounted for the majority of this variance (Madigan and Kim, 2021).

 Notably, burnout has been found to be likely to occur within the first few years of one’s career, and difficulty in coping effectively with burnout at this point most likely will cause one to leave the teaching profession altogether (Maslach, 1976).

Effects on students

Student performance can be adversely affected by teacher stress. In the first meta-analysis of teacher burnout research, a systematic literature review of 14 studies of 5,311 teachers and 50,616 of their students showed evidence that teacher burnout is associated with worse student academic achievement and lower quality student motivation (Madigan and Kim, 2021b). These findings reiterate a need for more detailed studies but provide preliminary evidence that teacher burnout can affect the students they teach.

A systematic review of a total of 98 peer-reviewed studies (2000-2019) showed that teacher well-being influences teaching quality (Hascher and Waber,2021).

A study of 121 teachers and 1,817 students (kindergarten to fourth grade) identified four patterns of teacher adjustment to stress, coping, efficacy, and burnout. High levels of stress were found in three of the four classes, which were described as high coping/low burnout (60%), moderate coping and burnout (30%), and low coping/high burnout (3%). The low coping/high burnout class of teachers had the poorest student outcomes (Herman, et al, 2018).

Source: Herman, et al, 2018

Burnout Symptoms

The following list of symptoms or effects of burnout was compiled from 13 different questionnaires used as standard assessment tools for burnout. These were listed as subscales or component factors of the overall composite scale in their statistical analyses. (Note: This is not a complete list but it is quite comprehensive; compiled by Schaufeli, et al, 2020—see the table above).

  • Aggressive reaction
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral symptoms
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Cognitive weariness
  • Cognitive-affective symptoms
  • Cynicism
  • Depersonalization
  • Depression
  • Depressive reaction
  • Disengagement
  • Distance [Distancing]
  • Distress
  • Dizziness
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Exhaustion
  • Fatality
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • Inability to relax
  • Inability to unwind
  • Inadequacy
  • Indolence
  • Inner void
  • Irritability
  • Lack of personal accomplishment
  • Mental fatigability
  • Muscle pain
  • Overtaxing oneself
  • Personal accomplishment
  • Physical fatigability
  • Physical fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Professional efficacy
  • Psychological exhaustion
  • Somatization
  • Tedium
  • Tension headaches
  • Work enthusiasm [decreased]

Factors Affecting Burnout

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is a quality found in people who experience feelings of anxiety, depression, or hostility in general (Roloff, et al, 2022). In one meta-analysis, 18 primary studies with 19 samples (N = 4,724) examined the relationships in teachers between the three main standard burnout dimensions (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, reduced personal accomplishment) and the Big Five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness). For emotional exhaustion, neuroticism was most closely related and was also positively associated with the other two burnout dimensions.

Gender and Burnout

Females seem to be more affected by burnout in several areas of life.

However, in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, a 2010 meta-analysis of gender differences in burnout in 409 effect sizes from 183 studies found that the commonly-held belief that female employees are more likely to experience burnout than male employees is not supported by the data up to 2010. Instead, it showed that women are slightly more emotionally exhausted than men, and men are somewhat more depersonalized than women (Purvanova and Muros, 2010). Moreover, they found that “[m]oderator analyses further revealed some intriguing nuances to the general trends, such as larger gender differences in the USA compared to the EU. In contrast, gender differences did not vary significantly in male-typed vs. female-typed occupations.” (Purvanova and Muros, 2010).

This is a different finding compared to a more recent gender analysis study that showed that women had the highest levels of burnout among university professors and academic staff members in some Brazilian public universities. In the Brazilian journal Psicologia: Reflexão e Críticaof, Rocha, et al state that  “[the] female gender has been associated with a high burnout risk due to several psychosocial factors: the double duties of home and work, societal gender-related roles and social expectations, the risks of sexual harassment at work and domestic violence, and gender-based discrimination” (Rocha, et al, 2020).

The gender aspect has to be analyzed further and reiterates the need for more studies in modern settings.

Occupation and burnout

A meta-analysis of 28 peer-reviewed English articles and 13 dissertations published between 1983 and December 2018 showed that for 6,623 SPED (special education) teachers, there was an extensive degree of correlation effect sizes between burnout and related variables (Park and Shin, 2020).

Results showed distinct relationships between each of the three burnout dimensions (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment) and student-, teacher-, and school-related variables (Park and Shin, 2020). Student age (Fisher’s Z = .316) was significantly associated with SET depersonalization, while self-efficacy, stress, and support from school personnel were significantly related to each burnout dimension (Park and Shin, 2020).

teacher engagement figure

Predictors of Burnout

There are a variety of predictors of stress and burnout for health professions faculty members, which include (but are not limited to) the following (Darbishire, et al, 2020):

  • heavy workload
  • fatigue
  • poor work-life balance
  • female gender
  • having young children
  • multiple conflicting work responsibilities
  • negative work culture
  • negative work policies
  • work inequities
  • lower faculty rank

Limited effects:

  • autonomy
  • collegiality
  • community
  • resources
  • training
  • rewards
  • prestige

Burnout and Emotional Intelligence 

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is defined as “the extent to which a person adequately deals with affective information” (Mérida-López and Extremera, 2017), or the ability to understand one’s own and other peoples’ emotions, and to behave or react appropriately in different situations (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.).

Emotional intelligence is important, but there is much heterogeneity in its measures in different studies, making it difficult to synthesize current understanding of this factor. Thirteen eligible articles from MEDLINE, PSYCinfo, and Scopus databases were examined and analyzed (Mérida-López and Extremera, 2017). The articles on EI and burnout in primary and in secondary school teachers showed that total EI was negatively associated with burnout. In other words, the higher the Emotional Intelligence (EI), the lower the burnout rate. This particular effect was notable in the female sample, whereas males’ burnout was partially mediated by stress and anxiety (Mérida-López and Extremera, 2017).

This shows that Emotional Intelligence should be incorporated into staff development and support activities.

Burnout and Depression Vs. Burnout and Anxiety

A meta-study of SCOPUS, Web of Science, MEDLINE (PubMed), and Google Scholar databases on studies on burnout and depression and burnout and anxiety published between January 2007 and August 2018 showed a significant association between burnout and depression (r = 0.520, SE = 0.012, 95% CI = 0.492, 0.547) and burnout and anxiety (r = 0.460, SE = 0.014, 95% CI = 0.421, 0.497), and that there is no overlap between burnout and depression and burnout and anxiety (Koutsimani, et al, 2019). These pairs are, thus, different and can be treated separately and independently.

Intervention Methods

Several intervention methods against burnout have been studied and some of these are presented below.

Exercise

Exercise may be one viable and practical solution to prevent or decrease teacher burnout.

A study involving four weeks of exercise showed that participants had greater positive well-being and personal accomplishment compared to the control group. They also had less psychological distress, perceived stress, and emotional exhaustion. Notably, cardiovascular exercise and resistance training effectively increased well-being and personal accomplishment and reduced perceived stress (Bretland and Thorsteinsson, 2015).

However, a meta-analysis comparing exercise therapy with no exercise therapy of 4 RCTs (total sample = 248) surprisingly showed no significant differences overall between intervention and control subjects in the reduction of burnout or emotional exhaustion scores. There were also overlapping confidence intervals in the studies, indicating that the total variability across the results of the studies is due only to chance (Ochentel,  et al, 2018). The authors, however, acknowledged that the different physical activity types and treatment modalities were quite varied and recommended future studies on the efficacy of each specific exercise modality combined with other interventions.

Mentoring

Positive correlations between age and job satisfaction have been reported, with older employees having overcome the stresses of early careers and have performed well subsequently (Maslach, 1976). It just makes sense to take advantage of their experience and knowledge to help younger colleagues prevent burnout in the earlier stages of their careers.

Institutional support

One study showed that a higher level of support from school personnel appears to decrease burnout levels, and though a small effect size was shown, the effect of support from school personnel was seen in all three dimensions of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. (Park and Shin, 2020). Exactly what kinds of support from school personnel were not explicitly stated in the review study, though.

In another study, few teachers were able to achieve an overall positive adjustment, and it was concluded that ecological (or institutional) interventions are necessary to foster wellness in teachers (Herman, et al, 2018).

Irrespective of a teacher’s field of knowledge, the implementation of burnout programs and preventive actions were suggested especially for women since their quality of life will affect the students’ quality of education (Alves, et al, 2019).

Source: Monte Wyatt

Institution-wide framework

A large-scale and institution-wide framework would be ideal as a holistic approach not only to address teacher burnout but also to tie it in with student learning outcomes and teacher support. An analysis of a long-running program in 21,000 schools over 20 years known as the School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS ) framework utilizes applied behavior analysis and involves whole-school social culture and includes three tiers of prevention (Horner and Sugai, 2015).

Universities would surely benefit from the lessons learned from this study, and perhaps trigger more studies involving a holistic framework like PBIS not only in burnout prevention and treatment but also in assessing learning outcomes and research progress. Success in implementing PBIS depends on systems that support implementation and include policies, team structures, data systems, funding, and regulations (Algozzine, et al, 2010), so it is a more institution-based initiative rather than the job of just one department or university committee.

Also, providing teachers with training and creating teacher social networks to mitigate the sense of isolation experienced by many teachers (Herman, et al, 2018) have been suggested.

Voluntary or self-screening for teachers

Self-screening is one method suggested for teachers to cope with stress and burnout. They can be given questionnaires with stress and coping scales and a scoring rubric to do some self-diagnosis of where they are in the burnout spectrum (Herman, et al, 2018). Support services should be tied to these steps to preemptively prevent burnout and decreased teacher performance.

Teacher Burnout–Future Studies

Teacher burnout is a serious problem that affects teachers’ lives and student performance and academic outcomes.  More studies specific to intervention methods should be done and preemptive, rather than curative, interventions are more desirable for schools and universities. These can also be incorporated into studies on student stress.

More focused research on K12 and university teachers should be performed, with more detailed interventions as part of the research methodology. The gold standard would be randomized trials, but absent that, the next best thing would be more descriptive studies done within the framework of institutional interventions.

 

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