Tackling teacher burnout & stress

Long hours, heavy workloads and periods of pressure and uncertainty are all typical of roles in education, and problems with stress, burnout and staff retention are all
 clear indications that there is a need for change, writes Dr Brian Marien

It is no secret that teaching is a challenging profession. Long hours, heavy workloads and prolonged periods of pressure and uncertainty are all very much typical of roles in education, and problems with stress, burnout and staff retention are all clear indications that there is a need for change. However, despite the unquestioned value of teachers’ work and the importance of their role in society, the true potential that lies in supporting their psychological wellbeing is still rarely acknowledged.

Our psychological health affects every aspect of our lives. Though once considered very separate, it is now clear that our mental wellbeing is inextricably linked to our physical health and that it has direct implications for our relationships, work performance, satisfaction and overall quality of life. The nature of the teaching profession along with the turbulence of the current education sector means that teachers are hugely vulnerable.

The impact of constant change and uncertainty is a leading risk factor in psychological wellbeing, and for those in teaching positions, the consequences of poor psychological health are particularly profound. In addition to any personal implications, there is inevitably a knock-on effect on the wellbeing and development of their students. With the psychological state of young people already a major source of concern in the UK, the significance of teacher wellbeing becomes increasingly more apparent.


Positive Group works in the education sector to bring about a sustainable improvement in the psychological health, wellbeing and resilience of teachers. Through programmes informed by experts in psychology, neuroscience and the medical sciences, it equips teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to manage stress and pressure and cope more effectively with change and uncertainty.

The focus is not on eliminating negative emotions, but instead on helping teachers to develop emotional literacy, self and social awareness and emotional regulation.

Many studies have highlighted the significance of the way we perceive situations and emotions, with compelling evidence for example that how an individual views stress affects how harmful it is (McGonigal). Helping teachers to develop these skills, to become aware of how negative thoughts and emotions arise, how they deal with them and how this can affect their decisions and behaviour is therefore of huge importance for improving overall wellbeing.


Human emotions and behaviours are contagious and as such, students F immediately stand to gain from progress within the teacher population. On average, students spend around 635 hours (primary) and 714 hours (secondary) in a classroom each year, and data we collected found that 84 per cent of sampled teachers agreed or strongly agreed that their moodstate impacts the behaviour of their students. However, as educational specialists with regular and substantial hours of contact with pupils, teachers are also ideally placed to deliver more direct, purposeful training.

Research has shown that poor psychological health in childhood and adolescence strongly correlates with mental health problems in adulthood. Poor mental health places an enormous burden on society by creating suffering, lack of enjoyment in daily activities, and social withdrawal. Research has found that these often start in adolescence.

The Department of Health was recently quoted saying: “By promoting good mental health and intervening early, particularly in the crucial childhood and teenage years, we can help to prevent mental illness from developing and mitigate its effects when it does.” Prevention and intervention during the period of adolescence is important because research has identified that “75 per cent of mental health problems begin before the age of 24, and half by age 15.” The statistics in this research also showed that the most common age for the onset of depression arises between the age of 13 and 15 years old. This can be sticky, and end up as a lifelong and recurring condition which goes on to create burdens on the individual, and those around them who are closest to them, both in the organisational world and personally.


From this research, we can suggest that targeting young people is extremely important, as interventions and wellbeing management programmes have the capability to prevent this early onset of mental health disorders. However, as we know that teachers are the ones whom these young people spend the majority of their days with, that they have far greater time to spread a message that normalises these issues, and in turn, can help to combat against the negative effects of them.

As part of our schools programmes, teachers are not only supported in their own development, but also guided in passing on their learning to their students. By giving them access to the same evidence-based tools and scientific theory, translated and tailored to suit their needs, teachers can provide valuable support for the development of social and emotional learning in young people. Within the classroom, this can lead to improvements in behaviour, communication skills and academic performance, whilst on a broader level, it also helps to establish a solid foundation for good psychological health and wellbeing in later life. The potential impact of this cannot be overstated: if we are able to provide a good grounding for younger generations while still at school, we may then be able to avoid many of the problems we are currently seeing in adult populations, particularly those relating to stress and burnout.


Incorporating this secondary step also helps to consolidate teachers’ own learning. ‘Watch one, do one, teach one’ is a method of learning that is practised in a variety of professions and one that has been shown to be highly effective in comparison with other learning techniques. It allows those involved to
take ownership of their learned knowledge and behaviour – something which has been linked to increased motivation and confidence.

The simple process of repetition also has an important effect: thanks to ‘neuroplasticity’, the process by which the brain can ‘rewire’ itself, repeating knowledge and techniques can precipitate structural development of neural pathways and subsequently bring about real, lasting change in the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of individuals.

It is impossible to avoid pressure, change, uncertainty and setbacks in today’s world. However, we can change the way we respond, and by developing self-awareness, practising cognitive techniques and simply acknowledging the importance of our psychological health we can make a remarkable difference to our experiences
and those of others. Teachers have a unique and invaluable role in society and currently face a wealth of challenges on a day‑to‑day basis. By supporting psychological wellbeing at this level, it seems clear that there is the potential to bring about huge positive change, not only within the teacher population, but also for students, schools and society as a whole.

Dr Brian Marien is co-founder of Positive Group and a medic, cognitive psychologist and health psychologist.

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