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Burnout Is Systemic, and We Need Systemic Solutions

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Way back in 2017, a ConnectEd subscriber requested resources for combating burnout on the job. The ConnectEd editor at the time put together a veritable smorgasbord of resources, many of which stand the test of time.

Obviously our situation in the beginning of 2023 in schools is very different from what it looked like in 2017. From reductions in school funding and dwindling resources (with staggering demands), to the fallout from the pandemic and the rolling mental health crisis in our young people, it follows that burnout hasn’t gotten better, despite our best intentions.

What is burnout?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It shows up as "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy." While burnout occurs because of workplace conditions, its effects can be wide-ranging, compromising individuals’ health, wellbeing, and relationships, in addition to reducing effectiveness on the job.

Burnout may seem like an individual problem, but it’s actually a systemic one. Individuals experiencing burnout are not to blame, and burnout should not be stigmatized. Stigmatization and “just don’t talk about it” attitudes further isolate individuals. It’s important to acknowledge that you can’t self help your way out of conditions and systems that create burnout.

Yet, we ask educators, administrators, and staff to fight burnout without adequate support and without the tools and resources they need to create better conditions to prevent and treat burnout.

How do we fight burnout while feeling burnt out?
“We can’t yoga our way out of this,” says Dr. Brian Adibe, MD, professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and Chief Wellness Officer, Rush University System for Health.

Burnout is a “chicken or the egg” situation. We need fully-funded, supported schools in order to not burn out our staff. Since the pandemic, nationwide we have lost 280,000 public school teachers to disease, burnout, and retirement. What’s more, those who have stayed on continue to do their own jobs and pick up the slack where schools and districts can no longer find replacements. As a teacher friend recently said, “teachers are asked to be flexible at all times. Yet our job has zero flexibility when it comes to our needs. That’s an equation for burnout.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office is so concerned about burnout that they have issued a first-ever, extensive framework for Workplace Health and Well-Being. In it, they suggest that we must create conditions where staff feel:

  • Protection from harm
  • Connection and community
  • Work-life harmony
  • Mattering at work
  • Opportunities for growth

Janet Swiecichowski, a doctoral candidate at the USC Rosser school of education, suggests, “only when educators are able to thrive will the students they serve have the same opportunity. The performance of a school can never surpass the capabilities of its staff.”

Burnout is a collective problem, and requires collective solutions
The Surgeon Generals’ report suggests the following measures (among many others) can help:

  • Redesigning jobs and teams to balance out workloads and create support networks can go a long way to creating resilience
  • Connecting individual work with the school’s mission
  • Making schedules as flexible and predictable as possible
  • Enabling adequate rest
  • Normalizing and supporting mental health

Swiecichowski adds that recovery from burnout can look different in different environments, but key ways to address it are:

  • Passage of time
  • Social supports
  • Connecting to purpose
  • Growth opportunities
  • Professional help
  • Changes in routines, behavior, environments, or job
  • Retraining your brain

She urges everyone to start small and build from there. After all, burnout doesn’t occur just in a day. It takes time to build up and compound. Often, addressing burnout can take time, patience, and resources. But ultimately, she urges school leaders to “lead with optimism and hope.”

The Takeaway
Burnout isn’t destiny. Schools are important. Educators are important. Empowering ourselves and each other to make changes, even small ones, helps us reinvest in our purpose and in our well being. Take this energy into the new year.