Schools across the country are facing rising levels of employee burnout. Teachers and staff members are experiencing more stress as worker shortages, pandemic issues, and secondary trauma add to overburdened workloads.

A 2021 research study found that burnout stems from three key components brought on by anxiety and stress: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Using the research from this study, schools can help prevent burnout by utilizing guidelines found in hope psychology to alleviate anxiety and support staff well-being and resiliency.

Why Hope?

Psychological hope can be measured, seen, and felt. Hope derives from a person’s goals, the agency or motivation to pursue those goals, and the ability to create pathways to get there. A neuroimaging study from 2017 revealed that hope serves a protective role in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. Researchers discovered that as hope goes up in the brain, the neural activity associated with anxiety goes down. Increasing hope is a critical element to decreasing anxiety and, with it, burnout and stress.

Hope ties directly into safeguarding a person’s identity. Identity is built from three key tasks: discovering and developing one’s potential with goals, choosing one’s purpose in life, and finding opportunities to exercise that potential and purpose. Schools support identity as people set goals on what they want to do and become. This simultaneously supports rising hope levels. Rising hope levels also, according to research, increase the chance of goal attainment, further supporting employee identity and improving life satisfaction and positive life outcomes.

All people want agency. Staff members need to have the ability to make plans, have control, and work toward their goals. A person’s motivation ties directly into the support and value they feel around their identity. Research shows that if a person thinks they are needed, respected, and valued, it boosts their agency. Leaders can protect individual identity by valuing competence, autonomy, and the need for relatedness.

3 Key Values

1. Competence: Competence relates to a person’s desire to gain mastery in their work. People are naturally goal-directed and want to get better. Leaders can support a staff drive for mastery and validate staff identities by building and utilizing a staff strengths directory.

Every person on a school staff comes with strengths and talents. Often due to the way schools are structured, staff members cannot see each other. By asking staff to use a Google Form to list their skill sets along with the programs and tools they’ve mastered and sharing it with the whole team, school leaders provide a way for staff members to connect and work on personal goals with someone who has expertise. It’s a simple way to validate the expertise of staff members and provides an outlet for staff to connect and work together to improve.

2. Autonomy: Voice and choice are critical to support a person’s identity and autonomy. Staff members must have a way to voice their thoughts on school culture and have choices in school decision-making. One effective way of doing this is through seeking and responding to staff “glows and grows.” Every month, leadership should ask staff members to submit one thing that they feel is going well in the building (glow) and one thing that could be improved (grow).

At the end of a staff meeting or in team meetings, go over the glows and grows and allow the staff to develop solutions for areas where the school has room for improvement. This practice provides staff members ownership and gives them autonomy in school decision-making. Plus, it provides staff with a way to collaboratively work on problems in the school community.

3. Relatedness: People need to experience a sense of belonging and connection with other people in the building to support their identity. Consider creating a way for staff members to nominate a colleague for a staff spotlight. School staff members work extremely hard, and it’s important to showcase their work. Leaders could ask local community organizations or the PTO to donate goods or rewards for this weekly prize so that staff members can feel community appreciation and receive kind words of affirmation from colleagues.

Strength in Community

Competence, autonomy, and relatedness can help with burnout, but the greatest cure is preventing it in the first place. More and more teachers face working conditions that perpetuate burnout: lack of planning, large class sizes, high workloads, and mandates on what can and cannot be taught. One of the ways leadership can aid teachers is to give staff an abundance of resources to assist with mounting workloads.

Creating a community fund to help staff workloads can be groundbreaking. Schools could seek donations from families and local businesses to build the fund. Schools could also utilize crowdsource funding for larger supplies or materials like DonorsChoose.org to ensure that staff members get materials they need to help with their work.

Second, consider building and maintaining a group of community volunteers for the school. Simply having extra hands in the building to offer overburdened staff restroom breaks, provide coverage for lunch or recess duties, or help classroom teachers organize or copy papers can drastically improve working conditions and help prevent burnout. In many communities, this may be impossible now due to Covid restrictions. Still, schools can compile a list of willing volunteers for when restrictions are lifted or find ways to utilize volunteers when students are not present.

Fixing burnout for staff will require systemic changes from policy makers, administrators, and communities to improve working conditions. It will take time to build change. However, every step leaders can take to build more hope and improve the workload for staff is a step in the right direction.

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