Teacher Burnout: An Ongoing Crisis in Schools

Teacher Burnout: An Ongoing Crisis in Schools

Read how schools can address staffing shortages and the increase in teacher burnout exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Lacroix, Medical Director, The Hartford
Michael Lacroix, Medical Director, The Hartford
Heather Savino, Underwriting Officer and Industry Lead, The Hartford
Heather Savino, Underwriting Officer and Industry Practice Leader, The Hartford
School closures driven by COVID-19, hybrid teaching environments and ever-changing health guidelines are continuing to fuel teacher burnout rates in the U.S. – something educators were already feeling long before the pandemic.
A recent survey by the National Education Association (NEA) found that 55% of teachers indicated they were planning to leave the profession sooner than planned.1 And 90% of members said feeling burned out is a serious problem.2
The findings about burnout are consistent with other industries. In fact, in The Hartford’s 2022 Future of Benefits Pulse Survey, the workplace burnout rate remained consistent at 61%.3
“What’s important to recognize about teachers is that before the pandemic, the profession felt under siege,” said Dr. Michael Lacroix, a medical director at The Hartford. “Now, the amount of work that teachers are being asked to do has doubled or tripled.”
Understanding the causes that led to teacher burnout is key to knowing how to address it. School officials and government can take measures to try to reduce stress and improve the mental health of teachers.
“The pandemic has put tremendous stress on school systems. This stress impacts administrators, students and especially teachers,” said Heather Savino, underwriting officer and education industry lead at The Hartford. “Addressing and reducing teacher burnout is not easy, but it is necessary to ensure the health and wellness of our educators.”

Why Do Teachers Burnout?

A driving factor in burnout is stress. Whether it’s getting overworked or feeling overwhelmed at a job, burnout can have drastic mental effects on teachers and workers.
“The two biggest drivers of stress in people are lack of control and a lack of predictability,” Lacroix explained. “In education, there’s a lack of control because things keep changing in the pandemic.”
When talking about teacher burnout in schools, Lacroix described a profession where people have long worked hard and battled thoughts of not being valued.
“In other countries around the world, teachers are like rock stars. It’s viewed that you want your kids to learn from people who are the top of their game,” Lacroix explained. “In most U.S. states, teachers aren’t always valued – especially from a salary perspective. Some have to take second jobs and many have to buy supplies for their students with their own money.”
The pandemic brought on significant changes in the education industry, like:
  • Schools initially shutting down and shifting to remote learning
  • Changing restrictions on health and safety guidelines, like masking and testing
  • Additional planning to address students learning in class and virtually
  • Extra responsibilities because of staffing shortages
“The whole business of teaching remotely has required teachers to put in more effort,” Lacroix said. “There’s a lot of preparation required and teaching virtually is very different than being in the classroom with students.”
Over time, stress and fatigue can add up and take a toll on teachers’ mental and physical health, which can lead to increased risk of injury, Savino noted.
“Teachers experiencing stress and burnout are at a heightened risk of injury or may have a more difficult time recovering from injury or illness and returning to work,” Savino explained. “Persistent burnout can cause existing health conditions to worsen. In the case of schools, teacher burnout can definitely lead to poor morale and higher employee turnover.”
Because of these increased risks, it’s important that schools make sure they have large business insurance and the right educational institution insurance cobertura.

Changing COVID-19 Restrictions

Safety recommendations changed as new, more contagious variants were discovered. For example, the omicron variant had high transmissibility. So, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended wearing masks like a N95 of KN95.
As COVID-19 cases dropped throughout the U.S., the CDC revised its mask guidelines depending on area risk level. Low risk areas, for example, don’t have to wear a mask in most situations.4 In high-risk areas, however, the CDC recommends wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.5
The CDC considers K-12 schools and other community settings as high-risk areas.6 In some states, however, local school systems dropped mask mandates or made wearing one optional.
Making sure they were following the appropriate guidelines, while also trying to stay healthy, added to stress levels in the schools, Lacroix said.

Doing More Work With Less Time

Before the pandemic, teachers were already stretched thin, Lacroix noted. They were tasked with lesson planning, teaching and working on any other extracurricular activities. In the middle of the pandemic, they were doing even more.
While many schools are back to in-person learning, the remote learning phase did put an additional layer of stress on teachers.
“When you have to teach in both a live setting and remotely, it involves dual prep and more effort to ensure both groups of students are engaged,” Lacroix explained.

Staffing Shortages

In 2021, more than 900,000 people left their jobs in the state and public education sector.7 Nearly 600,000 educators left their jobs in private education.8 The vast number of resignations in the education industry caused a staffing crisis in schools.
Teachers are picking up more responsibility as school systems face significant staff shortages. Schools across the country are seeing shortages with:
  • Maestros
  • Cafeteria workers
  • Bus drivers
  • Substitute teachers
“Like many industries, the education sector is facing a talent shortage. It’s not uncommon for educators to work as substitute teachers in other classes or do more work overall to give students an education,” Savino explained. “If the talent shortage doesn’t get addressed, it could have lasting negative effects on educators and further increase teacher burnout.”
Staffing shortages caused some school systems to resort to unconventional solutions. In New Mexico, the state asked the National Guard to help work as substitute teachers to prevent closures.9

How Do Teachers Recover From Burnout?

Solving teacher burnout won’t be easy, but it’s necessary. For people who experience burnout and common mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety, it could significantly impact how they function in various capacities, such as the workplace, according to Dr. Christine Crawford, an associate medical director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
“For people who are experiencing burnout, they may notice that the weekends are not long enough for them to recover and they return back to work feeling like their batteries have been fully charged. It is impacting the quality of work,” NAMI’s Crawford said in a recent interview with The Hartford about the pandemic’s impact on routine health care. “It’s important for people to recognize these signs and symptoms to talk to their supervisors about what it is that they’re experiencing, because often there may be ways in which the organization can be supportive of that employee and make the necessary changes to ensure that person’s mental health remains stable.”

Recognize the Signs of Burnout

Some of the signs of burnout include:
  • Feeling negative or having a negative attitude towards others
  • Feelings of cynicism
  • Loss of enthusiasm for work
  • Low sense of accomplishment
Burnout, Crawford explained, is a “marker” that things aren’t going well for the person and intervention is needed.
“It’s important for people to have these conversations with their employer to reduce burnout to make sure that their mental health is strong and sound, so that we can get people to feel satisfied and content with the work they’re doing each and every day,” Crawford said.

Feeling Valued

At the heart of the burnout issue is the fact that teachers don’t feel valued. Lacroix explained that raising teacher salaries could help improve morale.
“Teachers are typically underpaid, and they haven’t seen compensation for an increased workload brought on by the pandemic,” he said.
It’s something the NEA also believes is a key solution to address the burnout crisis. The organization is pushing to:10
  • Increase base pay
  • Raise substitute pay and provide them with benefits
  • Reduce the time to reach career-level pay
To address staffing shortages in the future, Lacroix emphasized the importance of increasing the number of college graduates who study education. If college students understand they can feel valued and have a good salary as a teacher, they may pursue a job in the industry, Lacroix said.

Employee Assistance Programs and Support

A crucial part to solving teacher burnout is providing support and counseling. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) help workers resolve personal problems that can negatively impact their jobs. For many businesses of all sizes, EAPs can help reduce:11
  • Absenteeism
  • Workers’ compensation claims
  • Health care costs
  • Accidents and grievances
While EAPs can be an important part of a company’s benefits package to workers, Lacroix emphasized that it may be a valuable asset for teachers.
“If you can’t create an environment that’s predictable where things aren’t constantly changing and teachers feel like they’re not in control,” Lacroix explained, “then the existence of an external EAP could be tremendous in helping people to cope.”
Lacroix emphasized an EAP’s value when it comes to confidentiality. As with many other industries, there’s a stigma in education for teachers who seek treatment for mental health conditions. An EAP, Lacroix said, can give teachers the access to services they may need for mental health conditions.
“Teachers, like other professionals, generally avoid sharing their mental health issues because there is still very much a stigma attached to mental health,” Lacroix explained. “People believe they will be perceived differently if they admit they experience mental health conditions or vulnerabilities.”

Change the Culture To Reduce Stigma

Our national survey found 72% of employers reported stigma associated with mental illness is preventing workers from seeking help.12
Reducing stigma in the workplace is necessary to improving the lives of millions of workers. Employers can change their workplace culture in many ways, such as removing barriers and making it easier for employees to get treatment.

Offer Support for Teachers’ Well-Being

Every school system and education institution is unique, but there are measures employers can take to try help their employees’ well-being. Offer resources that look at their physical, mental and financial health.
Some well-being resources that employers can offer are:
  • Benefits to address overall well-being, including an EAP
  • Ongoing communication to remind employees of benefits and services they have access to
  • Flexibility to employees who need to attend an appointment
1, 2 National Education Association, “NEA Survey: Massive Staff Shortages in Schools Leading to Educator Burnout; Alarming Number of Educators Indicating They Plan to Leave Profession”
3 The Hartford, “New Research From The Hartford Finds U.S. Workers Are Delaying Routine Health Care”
4, 5, 6 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Use and Care of Masks”
7, 8 The Wall Street Journal, “New Jobs for Burned-Out Teachers Mean Learning the Rules of the Corporate World”
9 NPR, “New Mexico Asks National Guard to Work As Substitute Teachers to Keep Classrooms Open”
10 National Education Association, “Solutions to the Educator Shortage Crisis”
11 SHRM, “Managing Employee Assistance Programs”
12 The Hartford, “The Hartford Study: Majority of Employers Recognize Employee Mental Health as a Significant Workplace Issue, Report Stigma Prevents Treatment”
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