Net Exchange Response


Title: I’m in stage three of burnout: help!

Date Posted: 4/11/2011

Question: “After reading through the material on your website related to teacher burnout, I have been educated on symptoms I have been experiencing. Unfortunately I am in stage 3. I am hoping you can refer me to a therapist who deals with burnout. I will greatly appreciate any leads you can give me.”

Response: Sorry to hear you are ready for the end of the school year before the school year is ready to end. You know you are not alone in feeling stressed out. (Unfortunately, too few nonteachers seem to appreciate how stressful the job is.)

As you will have noted in our Center’s resources related to teacher burnout, http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/qf/burnout.htm, most folks who are concerned with doing something emphasize that “burnout” is not an individual problem. It is the result of daily transactions between an individual and her/his working conditions. Of particular importance are job pressures and how well current working conditions enable one to cope with and pursue changes that reduce stressors.

Toward making the situation better for everyone, a good start is a support group at the school (e.g., bringing together a group who want to meet to enhance each other’s efforts to make things better personally and professionally). Given the time of year and the likelihood others are feeling as you do, the immediate focus might be on ways to energize classrooms, students, and staff for the rest of the school year (e.g., different configurations for team teaching, smaller and more personalized involvement with students, changes in what specifically is most challenging in the classroom, and other specific ways to counter the stress folks are experiencing).

With regard to a referral for counseling, since this can be expensive, you might want to look into what your health plan covers for "behavioral health" and try that avenue first. Also you might look into any Employee Assistance Program your district might offer. It is also possible the teacher’s union might want to organize a support component for school staff.



Feedback

A colleague sent in the following:

“This is one area that I fear flies ‘under the radar’ and thus might be much more prevalent than anyone realizes!

Factors that magnify stress of school personnel:

  • In general - overwork and under appreciation
  • Being required to do something the employee strongly feels is not right
  • Being micromanaged and negatively criticized
  • Not knowing how to say "no" to additional work
  • Not eating, sleeping, exercising, relaxing, meditating, appreciating in the right balance
  • Using legal (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc.) or illegal drugs to cope
  • Not having enough time for self-care
  • Previous exposure to traumatic/highly stressful events, especially if employee is in close physical or emotional proximity to the injured
  • Previous or currently existing employee mental health issues
  • Having a too porous "personal boundary", so that productive "professional caring" about students turns to unproductive (and personally damaging) "chronic ruminating & worrying"
Regarding staff burnout & counseling, I suggest the following:
  • If the employee is in a union, check with the union consultant regarding ones' protections and responsibilities regarding mental health issues at work.
  • People who are feeling stress on the job are at risk for making a bad decision regarding assignment, employment, etc. I've seen people so fogged out with stress that they signed a resignation letter slipped to them by a "helpful" principal and didn't even remember what the letter was about. They DID remember that the principal said that it would help matters if they signed the letter and also remember feeling grateful that the principal was "helping" them. Once that signature is on the resignation letter, it can tough to go back and get it reversed!
  • Some professions require that you contact a trusted colleague who can monitor your behavior and give you feedback about whether your mental state is impacting your work and your relationships with others. Even if one's profession does not have that as an ethical requirement, it's a good idea. It can be VERY difficult to accurately assess one's own state when stressed.
  • When a colleague monitors another, it helps to work out a particular phrase or hand gesture the observer can use to subtlety cue the stressed employee to "stop right now and back away" from the situation. Part of this system is that the stressed employee agrees in advance to abide by the observer's judgement and just immediately comply without questioning or protesting when the cue is given.
  • Remember that student misbehavior is hardly ever personal. (It's NOT about YOU!) The kids usually don't wake up thinking "I'll really get Teacher Smith's goat today!" They do experience challenges that are beyond their ability to adapt and cope, and will "blow up" in ways that might appear to be personal on the surface. But once you can sit with them and figure out the root cause, you might find that the reason YOU got the blow up was: a) you just happened to be there when the student's frustration tolerance totally evaporated, b) you said or did something that brought up old bad memories (this is why "triggers" need to be recorded and shared amongst staff!), c) the student sensed you cared and trusted you to deal with the blow-up fairly, or d) the student was uncomfortable with the culture in your classroom and was trying to stimulate you to recreate the dysfunctional nonschool world with which the student was most familiar/most comfortable. When you know this to be true, the blow-ups can still be intense, but you don't add in any additional pressure caused by guilt or feelings of incompetency; you can deal with it, and then figure out how to prevent the next blow-up (or respond to it better the next time.)”


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UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools
Dept. of Psychology, P.O.Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095.
tel: (310)825-3634
email: smhp@ucla.edu ~ web: http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu