Understanding burnout: what it is and what we can do about it

Martine Ellis discusses burnout and how to prevent it. This article was first published in December 2023 in the run up to the festive break. 

What is burnout?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The three main characteristics of burnout are “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy”.

Burnout is a social phenomenon. In other words, it is experienced in a social context – the workplace. To recover from burnout you must remove yourself from the social context – in education, this feels like an impossible task.

Furthermore, if the social context remains unchanged (this includes your actions and behaviours and those of other stakeholders), there’s every chance burnout will return. 

It would be better to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place.


A model for understanding burnout

The Job Demands-Resources Model (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007) is a helpful tool for understanding burnout.

The JD-R model states that every occupation has job demands and job resources. Job demands require effort and come at a cost to the employee (for example, long hours and high pressure). Job resources help employees work well, achieve their goals, and develop (such as salary, autonomy, support, and feedback).

The more job resources an employee has, the more demands can be safely placed upon them. 

Burnout happens when employees have high job demands and insufficient access to the necessary resources. To prevent burnout, demands and resources must be balanced. 


What can you do?

The JD-R model tells us that staff should use every available resource, and leaders and managers should focus on providing those resources. 

But what else can be done?

If you are close to burnout – or perhaps you have noticed signs of burnout in a colleague, and you want to support them – revisit boundaries. The blurring between work and home boundaries commonly contributes to burnout. 

Here are some ways you could reinforce your boundaries:

  1. Create boundaries around email. Email is a constant disruption, and because it is not the central part of any job role, it’s tempting to handle emails when we have a few spare minutes (for example, after the working day is finished or when you should be taking a break). Take work emails off your personal mobile device to remove this temptation. Consider setting specific points in the day to deal with emails – add these to your calendar and email signature to manage the expectations of people who contact you. At all other times, close your email application.  
  2. Learn to say no. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout purely because you only have a set number of hours in the day. If you are asked to do something and do not have the capacity, this is simply a fact. If you say “yes” to this request, something else must become a “no”. If you are unsure what to prioritise, speak with your manager. 
  3. Time-block your day. Time-blocking is adding everything to your calendar, including teaching hours, administration time (for example, marking), and breaks. Scheduling your entire day, including rest periods, will help you work efficiently and create clear boundaries around your time. 
  4. Ditch perfectionism. Holding yourself to impossibly high standards is likely to lead to burnout. Prioritise progress over perfection. It is possible to lower your personal standards without anyone else noticing.

As you enjoy a break over this festive period, take the opportunity to reflect on your boundaries. Could you make some positive changes in the new term? 

As you reflect, remember that to do well (personally and professionally), you must be well. Everybody wins when you prioritise your wellbeing. 


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Martine Ellis (FSET ATS) is a writer, speaker, and education consultant specialising in professional development and wellbeing-driven productivity.