Teacher Burnout

This blog is all about dispositional affectivity amongst school teachers. Wait, wait, wait, stick with it, this is actually quite interesting! You might recognise yourself in the description of a high PA or NA individual – or others you work with, and consider how you can best utilise social and emotional support to avoid burnout at work. 

Although this article was published in 2006, this highly relevant and important piece of research is particularly of significance amidst current coverage of teacher burnout and stress. If we can identify successful ways of avoiding teacher burnout in ways that don’t depend heavily on external practitioners and resources in a time of cuts, we can nurture and preserve the valuable resources of excellent teachers we already have. 

The article I’m discussing is from the Journal of Organisational Behaviour and is called Emotional Support and Job Burnout amongst High School Teachers: is it all due to dispositional affectivity?. The authors, Kahn et al, investigate the relationship between the contents of emotional social support and job burnout among high-school teachers. Previous research indicated that the link was not clear, even though intuitively, this doesn’t seem right. Kahn et al propose that this is because previous research has not distinguished between dispositional positive and negative affectivity. In other words, emotional and social support colleagues offer to one another can have a protective effect in preventing burnout, but only if it is the right type of emotional and social support. 

The authors give a useful overview of the issue of burnout amongst teachers, both for the individual (mental and physical health problems, impact on personal relationships etc) and the school (turnover, absenteeism amongst staff and less productive or effective teachers – therefore poor student performance). In addition to impacting day to day running of the school, issues of teacher burnout impact financial issues such as paying to hire and train new teachers as well as loss of productivity when teachers are off sick make this a critical issue for headteachers and leadership in an age of tight financial budgets.

Some research identifies that teachers, and in particular secondary school teachers, experience and report more burnout than any other caring profession including nurses, mental health professionals and doctors.

Whilst the press has publicised figures such as 50% of teachers remaining in the profession after 5 years and more than half considering leaving on their second year, these figures do not give us insight into the impact of burnout on those who remain in the profession, for example, Maslach et al. (2001) report that there are widespread organisational withdraw behaviours that occur long before teachers leave the profession. These could include lower production of work, expressing cynicism / lack of motivation, absenteeism, considering leaving the profession and so on. Teachers can feel detached from their work and have a low level of confidence that they are making a difference. Teachers can also be negative or cynical to those they work with as a way of coping with their own feelings of stress or burnout.

Whilst the authors recognise that social support of our colleagues can help prevent burnout, they cite Beehr et al. in the distinction that the contents of emotional social support reflect the topic that is being discussed, and these contents can be positive, negative, or non-job related. Beer et al’s study was of nurses – they found that as positive support increased, emotional exhaustion and cynicism decreased, but negative support and non-job support were unrelated to burnout.

Positive affectivity refers to the trait or disposition of a person more likely to be energetic and experience positive moods. High-PA individuals are more likely to seek social support than low-PA individuals. High PA people are less likely to feel burnt out, partly due to the protective factor of their good mood, and also due to the fact that they will seek out and receive positive support from other high PA individuals.

Conversely, those with high NA often experience events negatively and are more likely than low-NA individuals to use emotion-focused coping to manage their negative moods. High NA individuals reported less positive support, less empathy support, but more negative emotional social support (because those high in NA have more unpleasant emotions for which to seek support, and their support appears to focus on these unpleasant emotions).

So…The authors set out to test the theory Beehr developed about nurses in relation to teaching staff (339 high school teachers (229 women, 110 men) from the United States). They used a survey to measure teachers PA or NA (so potentially this could be used as part of teacher training or recruitment although the obvious problem of whether individuals would respond truthfully would be a major issue).

Once the NA and PA had been measured, individuals completed a questionnaire based on how often they access social emotional support and what form it takes-“the content areas of emotional social support measured are positive support (four items; e.g., ‘We talk about the good things about our work’), negative support (five items; e.g., ‘We talk about how we dislike some parts of our work’), non-job-related support (four items; e.g., ‘We discuss things that are happening in our personal lives’), and empathy support (five items; e.g., ‘My coworkers tell me they sympathize with what I am saying’)” and a burnout measure called The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI; Maslach et al., 1996) which is a commonly used 22-item measure of three components of job burnout: “emotional exhaustion (nine items; e.g., ‘I feel emotionally drained from my work’), cynicism (five items; e.g., ‘I feel I treat some students as if they were impersonal objects’), and professional efficacy (eight items; e.g., ‘I can easily understand how my students feel about things’)”.


Teachers who experienced high amounts of NA and low amounts of PA reported higher levels of job burnout than those who experienced low amounts of NA and high amounts of PA. Affectivity was also related to the contents of emotional social support, particularly the use of positive and negative support. Finally, teachers who engaged in more (vs. fewer) communications with positive content with coworkers (i.e., positive emotional social support) experienced lower levels of job burnout, and teachers who engaged in more (vs. fewer) communications with coworkers dealing with negative content (i.e., negative emotional social support) experienced higher levels of job burnout.

In other words – having positive social and emotional support from your colleagues can foster good mental physical and emotional health as well as prevent work stress and burnout. However, getting locked in to negative cycles of cynicism or moaning about what you dislike with colleagues can have the opposite impact. 

Interestingly, it made no difference whether the person seeking support was a high PA/NA individuals as to the impact on burnout, but high PA individuals were more likely to naturally seek out positive support and therefore less likely to burnout.


What are the implications for how and what we choose to communicate with each other as colleagues? How can we use this emotional and social support as a healthy support of our practice rather than a precursor to burnout? 

As always we welcome your ideas, experiences and thoughts on this research. 

Thanks for reading! Who knew dispositional affectivity could be so fascinating eh?





School change – Teacher Perspectives

For any whole school change process to be successful, teachers (and other school staff) need to feel that the initiative or intervention is needed, worthwhile (it is likely to solve a current problem, improve practice or outcomes) and manageable within current time and resource constraints.

Whilst programmes in school geared towards improving social, emotional learning and mental health often have positive outcomes, there is less research to suggest the outcomes of these programmes can be sustained (relying as they often do on funding and external support) or what factors contribute to the success of an intervention where they have worked particularly well.

Freeman, Wertheim and Trinder’s 2014 paper: Teacher perspectives on factors facilitating implementation of whole school approaches for resolving conflict, presents multiple case studies of a conflict resolution programme called Enhancing Relationships in School Communities (ERIS). The article presents the findings from in depth interviews with participating staff, who having been on the training about ERIS, had led groups within their school implementing curricular and policy changes based on the ERIS model.

Staff were asked to report the ‘most significant change’ that had occurred in the project – which was potentially a leading question. Nevertheless, many positive changes were reported, both in content of curriculum and how all staff were managing conflict in the playground, particularly use of language.

All participating schools were primary schools. One significant piece of feedback was that the vast increase in complexity in a secondary mainstream school system might have rendered this intervention more problematic and presented a greater range of barriers to overcome.

Freeman et al transcribed all the staff interviews and used the emergent themes to form a “Model of process and structural factors facilitating implementation of a whole school conflict resolution programme, based on implementation team perspectives” which is a catchy name indeed (see image above the blog post)

Whilst the elements staff identified as key to the programme’s success (such as providing resources, getting the timing right, clarity, providing feedback etc) may seem like common sense, as the authors identify, research to ask STAFF what is important to making positive changes stick in schools is few and far between, so collating all the ideas here in a model is useful.

Interesting also, was the importance of flexibility, adaptability and co-production. Whatever the programme being introduced, staff needed to feel they had been part of creating or at least adapting the intervention in order to sustain their motivation in delivering it, particularly when competing pressures or other, less engaged staff threatened the success of the project.

A common concept I have come across in the literature on school reform so far is ‘change fatigue’ – resulting form school and national policy changes at a pace that is overwhelming and unmanageable for staff. So it makes sense that staff identify appropriate time and support for professional development as a priority as well as clarifying the purpose and priority of the intervention.

Establishing a ‘core’ team of implementation leaders within the school seemed to help lead the intervention, but I wondered as I read the article what the feedback about non ‘core team’ staff might have been, would they have been as positive about the impact of the project having not been as involved in it? If so, how was the learning form ‘core team’ translated to whole school? If not, how could the staff team as whole have been further involved in the design and planning stages?

Engaging in cluster groups with other schools (including what is referred to as ‘lighthouse schools’ that will provide examples of good practice), and marrying up the new approaches with what already works (AKA not reinventing the wheel) were also seen as positive aspects of the intervention.

This is a particularly interesting topic for me, since my PhD thesis will focus on school staff perspectives of the effectiveness of the Academic Resilience Approach, and in particular, barriers or facilitators of any positive change.

I’m curious to know if I have similar findings or whether I will need to reconsider this model in the light of my findings.

I would really welcome feedback on this from a range of school staff and teaching experience, the following questions won’t form part of the PhD but they could help to direct my interview questions with staff:

In whole school approached or interventions yo have experienced before, what were the top three barriers (if any) to the success of the project?

In whole school approached or interventions yo have experienced before, what were the top three factors that contributed (if successful) to the success of the project?

In your opinion, are top down (directed initiatives) or bottom up (based on identified practice need) initiatives more successful and why? If a combination of both, which elements work best from each?

Finally, what makes a good project sustainable?

As always, thanks for reading and comments are really welcome!