Preventing Teacher Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, and Tips

Teachers affect a student’s achievement two to three times more than any other factor at school, according to a study from RAND. Research published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education suggests that professors, too, significantly influence student success and college dropout rates. While teachers and professors can transform students’ lives, they face formidable challenges. Long hours, solitary work, and lack of autonomy can place undue stress on them and compromise their potential to make a positive impact.

Two-thirds of faculty participants in a study reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education said they felt “very” or “extremely” stressed in the past month. This can lead to teacher burnout: a point at which educators experience relentless anxiety that negatively affects their ability to thrive professionally or personally.

Education professionals who want to play a role in addressing the causes of burnout in higher education should consider pursuing a degree program that focuses on applying leadership theory to real-world scenarios, such as a Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership.

Teacher at a desk rubbing her temples and looking at a book.

Teacher Burnout and Its Symptoms

Most educators recognize the power they hold in helping students realize their potential. However, when confronting obstacles such as limited administrative support and a lack of autonomy or input into university practices, educators can feel overwhelmed.

If this persists, educators can experience emotional exhaustion. They may begin to feel powerless and develop feelings of detachment, depression, and apathy, among other symptoms. Physical symptoms, such as weight loss or gain and lack of sleep, may also manifest.

A report from the American Council on Education found that 42% of college and university presidents considered the mental health of faculty and staff a top concern. This lines up with findings published in the journal PLOS One that showed that one-third of college faculty experienced burnout.

Impact of Teacher Burnout on Students

The impact of burnout on teachers inevitably rubs off on students. A teacher’s work may suffer, leading to less engaging classes, less in-depth feedback, and a more teacher-centered instructional approach.

The feelings of detachment that typically accompany teacher burnout may also make educators less approachable to students. In turn, teacher-student relationships can suffer, and students may get the impression that their teachers or professors don’t care about them.

This can have a major impact on a student’s sense of belonging and interfere with learning. The International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education shows a strong connection between a student’s performance and sense of belonging. In fact, student success can depend more on a perception of a professor’s caring than on the student’s grit or resilience.

Causes of Teacher Burnout

Despite the satisfaction educators may gain from meaningful student relationships, teaching inevitably tries their endurance at times. Without the necessary support from colleagues and administrators, as well as resources such as training and essential materials, educators may feel embattled by what seem like insurmountable obstacles.

Myriad factors, some that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated, can lead to teacher burnout.

Putting in Long Hours

University professors can work long hours. In addition to their teaching schedules, they need to hold office hours, prepare for classes, grade assignments and tests, and conduct research. In particular, professors are often required to churn out studies, articles, and other types of publications that demand a considerable amount of time to produce.

Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many professors have had to shift the curricula for entire class schedules slated for in-person meetings that suddenly went online. This has added hours to workweeks as professors have scrambled to translate their courses to distance learning platforms.

Working Alone

Instructors in higher education often conduct much of their work alone, potentially leading to feelings of isolation. These feelings may be exacerbated by the tenure process and the measurements used to track professors’ progress on individual accomplishments.

Feelings of isolation may also be intensified by the seclusion of virtual education due to COVID-19.

Poor Job Prospects

Universities often offer few tenure-track positions, leaving many professors with temporary positions that come with few benefits, low pay, and the risk of no contract renewal at the end of a term.

A recent report from the American Federation of Teachers found that 4 in 10 contingent faculty members struggled to cover basic expenses, such as food and rent, either during school breaks or year-round. This can cause stress and easily lead to burnout.

Providing Emotional Support to Students

A recent study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation examining the role of faculty in student mental health found that around 80% of faculty had communicated with students about mental health in the past 12 months. This can take a toll on professors who may be struggling with stress. According to the study, 20% of professors providing emotional support to students believed that doing so harmed their own mental health.

Teacher Burnout Prevention Tips

Tackling burnout calls for a multifaceted approach. To stave off this pressing problem, education leaders, along with teachers and professors themselves, need to take action. Consider the following tips that can help protect educators from teacher burnout:

Strategies for Education Leaders

Education leaders play a key role in creating a nurturing environment for educators. Providing proper support to educators allows schools and universities to attract and keep talented and qualified candidates.

Offering Physical and Mental Health Amenities

Research has consistently shown the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices on a person’s mental health. Providing educators with easier access to physical and mental health amenities, such as yoga, relaxation classes, and counseling services, can encourage them to engage in healthy practices for their body and mind. It can also help strengthen their ability to manage stress, key to preventing burnout.

Talking About Teacher Burnout

Education leaders need to build awareness about teacher burnout, its symptoms, and methods for addressing it to work toward prevention. By setting up meetings and training on the subject, education leaders can open conversations about how to recognize signs of burnout in themselves and others.

Being More Responsive to Teachers’ Needs

Education leaders can check in with educators through surveys to gain insight into what educators are struggling with. They can also prevent teacher burnout by pushing back against practices that keep educators worrying about job security. This may involve finding ways to offer better contracts to adjunct faculty and developing practices that reduce stress around performance evaluations.

Being More Responsive to Teachers’ Needs

Education leaders can check in with educators through surveys to gain insight into what educators are struggling with. They can also prevent teacher burnout by pushing back against practices that keep educators worrying about job security. This may involve finding ways to offer better contracts to adjunct faculty and developing practices that reduce stress around performance evaluations.

Creating Opportunities for Connection and Networking

Education leaders should create opportunities for educators to connect and share ideas, express frustrations, and support one another. This limits feelings of isolation that can lead to teacher burnout. Sponsoring faculty lunches with no agenda, devoting meetings to exchanging best practices, or brainstorming ways to improve cooperation can bring people together, building trust and camaraderie.

Encouraging Work-Life Balance

Encouraging educators to take care of their physical, emotional, and social health can help limit some of the imbalances that lead to teacher burnout. Establishing practices that encourage work-life balance, such as avoiding after-hours calls, sets important boundaries for prioritizing the different aspects of their lives.

Strategies for Teachers and Professors

Teachers and professors need to take an active role in protecting themselves from burnout. Some actions that educators can take in this regard include the following:

Sharing Feelings

Talking with a friend, trusted colleague, or family member can help relieve built-up tension that can block clear thinking. It also helps educators sort out and assess their own feelings while getting a chance to hear feedback and advice about how to handle different situations. Additionally, it helps educators feel less alone in their struggles.

Practicing Self-Care

Self-care ensures that educators get a chance to recharge their batteries, so they have the physical and mental strength to attend to their students, research, and other job tasks. Educators should think about developing healthy routines that help them relax and renew their energy, such as:

  • An exercise routine
  • A sleep schedule
  • A relaxation practice
  • A regular leisure activity

Establishing a Support System

To combat feelings of detachment and cynicism often associated with teacher burnout, educators should seek support. This may involve participating in mentorship or peer coaching programs or forming relationships with colleagues to exchange tips for grading, discuss ideas for balancing workloads, or simply share a good conversation.

Taking a Break

Educators need to set boundaries for themselves. This means taking breaks and putting work aside at times. Different time management apps can help educators prioritize and organize their tasks as well as create schedules that free up time. Taking a break at key intervals helps educators function more productively when they do routine work.

Maintaining Perspective

Educators should take a step back from their work at times and remember the importance of their mental well-being. Maintaining perspective about all that matters can help prevent educators from losing sight of what got them into education in the first place. It can also help them better regulate their emotions and find balance.

Asking for Help

Educators shouldn’t hesitate to seek help when they feel overwhelmed. This may mean speaking with a department chair to get an extension for a deadline, reaching out to a colleague for ideas about how to manage a problematic student, or arranging a counseling session through the school’s employee assistance program.

Combat Teacher Burnout as an Education Leader

Teaching offers both considerable rewards and challenges. Today’s schools, colleges, and universities need capable leaders prepared to combat teacher burnout. An advanced degree in education leadership can prepare higher ed professionals to support educators and make a difference in students’ lives.

Discover how Maryville University’s online Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership can help empower education leaders to advance their careers and tackle challenges — such as teacher burnout — that can hold educators back from thriving.

Recommended Reading

Active vs. Reflective Leadership: Two Educational Styles

Empowering Women in Higher Education Leadership

Tips on Landing the Job in Higher Education Administration


American Council on Education, “College and University Presidents Respond to COVID-19: 2020 Fall Term Survey”

American Federation of Teachers, An Army of Temps: AFT 2020 Adjunct Faculty Quality of Work/Life Report

The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How to Counter the Isolation of Academic Life”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Pandemic Is Dragging On. Professors Are Burning Out.”

CNBC, “50% of Teachers Surveyed Say They’ve Considered Quitting, Blaming Pay, Stress and Lack of Respect”

Collegis Education, “Why Faculty Burnout Is an Issue (and How Your School Can Avoid It)”

EdSurge, “Burnout Is Coming to Campus. Are College Leaders Ready?”

Edutopia, “How to Build Emotional Supports for Teachers”

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