From the beginning of our work together, back in the Before You Embark section, we have noted that all teachers face a higher burnout risk than people in other professions. We will spell that out in more detail here, providing you with some terminology, some signs and symptoms, and some reminders about stages of burnout.

One very useful definition of burnout which we have adapted from the seminal work of Herbert Freudenberger (1980), who coined the term "burnout," Christina Maslach (1982) and Bob Veninga and Jim Spradley (1981):

A debilitating psychological condition brought about by unrelieved work stress, resulting in:

  • Depleted energy and emotional exhaustion

  • Lowered resistance to illness

  • Increased depersonalization in interpersonal relationships

  • Increased dissatisfaction and pessimism

  • Increased absenteeism and work inefficiency
The key word in this definition is "unrelieved," not "stress." As we have said, stress in school is to be expected; it is a fact of life. The key is to personally and systemically ensure that the inevitable stresses are addressed, lest the burnout risks escalate if the stresses spiral up unabated and unchecked.

Before we go further, we want to go back to this notion of teachers being at greater burnout risk than people in other professions. Maslach's (1982) book title says it all: it is Burnout: The Cost of Caring. The very fact that you care about other people puts you at greater risk of burning out than if you did not care. It's another of those stress-related paradoxes we have mentioned throughout our work with you.

You enter the profession in the first place with high ideals of service to others -- this makes you a burnout risk.

You daily face lots of red tape, regulations, and mandates in a profession with high expectations by the public typically accompanied by relatively low salaries -- this makes you a burnout risk.

You don't punch a clock, and since you care about what you do you typically take work home with you -- this makes you a burnout risk.

Even as hard as you have studied and as much as you work hard to stay on top of all the new presenting issues from your students every day, there is no way that you ever can anticipate all that you will have to face in your classroom -- this makes you a burnout risk.

The cost of caring. Think about it for a moment: if you care about your students and your job, you're going to tend to work harder at it. As you're successful at what you do, you are more likely to be noticed, respected, and asked to do more for the good of the cause at school. This will put more demands on your time and energy. The very fact that you care will mean that you are more likely, not less likely, to be sought after for committee work and other leadership responsibilities because your peers respect and trust you. And, over time, as we mentioned above, unless you are taking care of yourself so as to prevent burnout, you will be increasingly at risk because of your commitment to giving and giving and giving. Unless you also are replenishing yourself, there are limits to how much you are able to give.

Maslach and Leiter's (1997) more recent work, presented in their book The Truth about Burnout, defined burnout more in terms of the systemic disconnect between a person's true self and their expectations about their work, as opposed to the realities of what they actually find themselves experiencing at work. Their definition of burnout is given below:

Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will -- an erosion of the human soul. (Maslach and Leiter, 1997, p. 24)

Maslach and Leiter went on to reinforce the notion that it is not the fault of the worker that they experience burnout, but rather that the strong impact of the work environment mitigates either toward promoting burnout or preventing burnout in a particular setting. The six systemic sources of burnout that are discussed in detail in Maslach and Leiter's book are:

work overload
lack of control
insufficient reward
breakdown of a sense of community
value conflict

Workplace leaders and administrative officers thus have a significant role to play in the promotion of healthy workplace environments. We would caution, however, that sometimes this is the case, and sometimes it decidedly is not. Therefore, we go back to our fundamental theme that it is essential for you to be paying careful attention to:

how well you are doing
how positively you are feeling about your experience
how well you are regularly engaging in the kinds of self-care activities that you know help to keep you vital

In other words, to paraphrase the environmentalist credo "Think globally, act locally," we urge you to "Think systemically, but continue to act personally." You always can be the critical element in your self-care, regardless of the nature of your workplace environment.

To reinforce one crucial element of Maslach and Leiter's (1997) definition of burnout, we also would like to offer one more very straightforward definition, which one of us (Tim) first learned about in a training some years ago with psychotherapist Rachel Naomi Remen. Remen, whose clinical practice for years specialized in terminally ill persons, their family members, and burned out helping professionals, defined burnout as follows:

* Burnout is the loss of meaning in one's work *

Remen's work with her burned out clients, then, involved a process of accompanying them on an exploration of what drew them to their work in the first place, how that squared with their present experience, and how appropriately to mourn the loss of what no longer was in place for them so that they then could begin to move forward once again.

Relatedly, Tom Skovholt's excellent book The Resilient Practitioner (2001) makes a distinction between the traditional notion of burnout as impacted by a person's caring [as we discussed earlier regarding Christina Maslach's work] and the notion of burnout as impacted by a person's meaning. Skovollt wrote:

Meaning burnout occurs when the calling of caring for others and giving to others in an area such as emotional development, intellectual growth, or physical wellness no longer gives sufficient meaning in one's life. Individuals in the caring professions derive much "psychic income" from helping others. In religious terms, such occupations are often labeled a calling, a calling to something of great value. When the meaning of the work disappears, an existential crisis can develop, and meaning burnout can result. My definition is that meaning burnout occurs when the meaning of the work has been lost and the existential purpose for the work is gone. (Skovholt, 2001, pp. 111-112)

To complete this section on burnout, we want to refer you to Veninga and Spradley's (1981) work on stages of burnout. Their model may help you to assess how far down the road toward burnout you might be at this point in time, The stages can be a useful tool for you to reality test how you are doing and also a potential wake-up call to action. Click on the button below to learn about descriptors of the stages of burnout.

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