How To Navigate Burnout in the Education Sector

Learn more about how to manage your mental health as an education worker, while continuing to support others.

Education workers have been on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic — offering support to students and addressing issues such as depression, anxiety, bullying, eating disorders, substance use and grief as they show up in schools. Despite dealing with high turnover and having to navigate constant changes in government regulation, education workers have gone above and beyond in adapting to new circumstances, taking on more responsibilities, and offering additional support to students. 

However, this has come at a cost. We spoke to Vesna Antwan, a personal and professional coach who is part of the Inkblot network of life and career coaches, on the collective sense of workplace burnout education workers are feeling, how to notice the signs and symptoms, and tips on how to address burnout. 

What is workplace burnout?

Antwan describes workplace burnout as “a prolonged feeling of being overworked. It feels like a disease of disengagement and exhaustion in its purest form. It’s an accumulation of stress over time, and it feels like you never have time to recover. Yet, the desire to keep on going is still present.” Workplace burnout causes overwhelm, mental drain, and the feeling of being unable to keep up with the demands in the workplace. 

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” Antwan explains that burnout is not a passing ailment that can be fixed with short-term solutions, like taking a vacation or having a message. Rather, it is a “chronic problem that requires deep inner work in order to identify and solve.” It is usually a sign that there are other aspects of your life that you need to address and requires deep self-assessment to get to the root of your burnout. 

The root causes of workplace burnout 

Antwan explained that burnout is “not a personal failure, but rather a reaction to the systems you are navigating that are fundamentally broken, and that keep demanding more of you.” She referred to research conducted by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter of the University of California at Berkeley and Acadia University respectively, which identified six causes of burnout

  1. Work Overload
  2. Perceived Lack of Control or Authority
  3. Lack of Rewards
  4. Lack of Community 
  5. Absence of Fairness 
  6. Values Misalignment

Antwan took an intersectional approach to understand the collective sense of burnout education workers experience. “Many education workers happen to be women and women of colour, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.” Many of them have families that they need to show up for in greater ways during this uncertain time. Meanwhile, we are also experiencing a mental health crisis in schools, with students showing up with increased levels of anxiety and depression. This, in turn, has increased the demands placed on education workers to support students. The pandemic has caused staffing shortages, with many teachers taking on more work to fill the gaps. In many ways, education workers have shifted the focus from themselves to those around them that need additional support — but over time, this has taken an emotional toll on education workers and increased rates of burnout. 

Antwan mentions that understanding the causes of burnout requires us to look inwards and at the systems of work we operate in. “The ‘grind culture’ that capitalism perpetuates, encourages burnout and condemns rest,” she explains. Deep introspection is important to give ourselves the rest, joy, and motivation we need to avoid burnout. 

The signs of burnout

Antwan explains that burnout is different for everyone and that “the way we experience burnout is tied to our personalities, how empathetic we are, and how we are in the world.” However, she did give some general examples of physical, mental, and emotional that might indicate that you're experiencing burnout:

Physical Symptoms 

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Chronic pain in body,
  • Feeling of tension in body
  • Getting sick more often than normal 
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in appetite

Mental Symptoms

  • Lack of motivation
  • Needing to stay busy to be busy 
  • Feeling like you are in survival mode
  • Increase in negative thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty concentrating 

Emotional symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Dread 
  • Overwhelm
  • Looking to numb with substances or through other unhealthy coping mechanisms
  • A feeling of detachment and apathy
  • Feeling lost in thought/distracted 

5 tips to address burnout 

In the long term, if burnout continues to go unaddressed, it could spill into other areas of your life and make you too exhausted to deal with things outside of work. Antwan gave some valuable tips on how to prevent, recognize and address burnout:

1. Do an audit on yourself regularly

Reflection is the most important part of identifying your unique burnout symptoms early. Take some time monthly, or even weekly, to monitor mood, energy and health changes. Get into the habit of slowing down to check in with yourself and ask important questions that will help you design your life in a way that feels good, healthy and sustainable.

Try this activity. Pick a date once a month to reflect on the following questions: 

  1. How are you feeling?
  2. What do you need more or less of? 
  3. Do you need help? 
  4. What can you give yourself to make life better?
  5. How do you want your days to look, and what feels good to you?
  6. How much time do you want to be working and how much time do you want outside of work?
  7. Does the work you do align with your personal values and what can you do to better align your work to your values?  
  8. What activities did you do this month that brought you joy, or exercised your creativity and imagination? 
  9. How can you prioritize the things that make you happy?  

2. Build in recovery time into your day 

Remember that productivity is not the only measure of success. Your ability to show up at work and support others depends on the time you take to rest and recover. Reframe how you think about rest and intentionally build it into your day — the same way you would with other tasks.

3. Complete the stress cycle

Antwan referred to Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski’s research on burnout and the “cycle of stress” in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. She explains that we must “complete the cycle of stress” to move through the emotional exhaustion burnout brings. Antwan provided gave us the following ways you can complete the stress cycle: 

  • Physical activity and movement that feels good
  • Positive social interaction
  • Deep breathes 
  • Belly laugh 
  • A good cry 
  • Physical touch (hugs)
  • Creative expression that connects you to the beauty around you and brings joy  

4. Put time into a holistic well-being practice 

Think about your well-being in a holistic way. This includes your mind, body and soul. Body movement, nutrition, sleep, hobbies that bring you joy, and the relationships you cultivate with others are all important factors to consider when trying to address burnout. When things in your life feel out of balance, try to figure out which area needs your attention and make adjustments as necessary.

Start simple. Pick one activity you would like to focus on that you feel best addresses your symptoms. For instance, simple body movements like going for a walk, running, or doing some outdoor physical activity can be a great way to boost mood. Build that into your daily routine by habit stacking and attaching that activity to something you do every day. For instance, if you commute to work on transit, consider getting off one stop earlier and walking to work. Remember to celebrate the time you put into your own well-being.

5. Lean on family, friends, coworkers, community, and your organization

You don’t have to face  burnout alone. At times, we all need help and support from our friends, family and community. Antwan discusses how she believes that the term ‘self-care’ is often too individualistic. Instead, she advocates that care and healing must happen within the community to be lasting. This requires expressing the struggles you are facing to others within your community and the willingness to ask for help. 

Antwan explains that organizations have a responsibility to address burnout as well. Beyond offering wellness programs, she discusses the importance of investing in comprehensive resources and in deep culture change to deal with the root causes of burnout for education workers. She also encourages doing an “organizational audit,” to understand what addressing mental health in the workplace means and how it will be put into practice.

Recognizing burnout may lead you to positive changes

Burnout is challenging, but it might help you reevaluate your life. It can be an opportunity to ask yourself deeper questions and understand what you need to do to move forward.  Remember, it is never too late to transform your life and take small steps toward improving your circumstances. Antwan believes that addressing burnout is a way of  “coming home to yourself” by reclaiming agency over your time and designing your life in a way that feels sustainable to you. Taking small actionable steps to build well-being habits into your everyday life can make the greatest impact. 

If you are struggling with burnout, lean on your Inkblot EAP for additional support. At Inkblot, we believe in holistic mental health support. We offer Counselling and Advisory Services, including lifestyle, health and career coaching. To access your advisory services, go to your Inkblot dashboard, choose the “Advisory Services” section, and get connected with the support best suited to your needs.

Sanskriti Ravi

Content writer at Inkblot

Vesna Antwan

Vesna Antwan, PPCC, ACC, is an internationally certified and accredited personal and professional coach who supports burnt out professionals in finding their way back to themselves and their inner compass. A racialized coach with a background in social justice, she strives to create coaching spaces that are inclusive and anti-oppressive. Vesna’s coaching framework is whole-person centered and sensitive to her clients’ identities, experiences, values and beliefs. She believes that coaching is a process of discovery, one that brings out the possibilities within and shines a light on our unique stories. On top of her work in private practice, Vesna designs and facilitates workshops on essential skills like radical self-care, boundary setting and burnout prevention.