Is There Such a Thing as a Teacher Work-life Balance, and is it Still Achievable?

In 2021, the Teacher Wellbeing Index published by Education Support Network found that 77% of teachers were experiencing symptoms of poor mental health due to work. Not only that but 54% have considered leaving the sector in the last two years. This begs the question – is it still possible for teachers to achieve a good work-life balance?

As someone who works in education you are probably tired of hearing about the importance of a ‘teacher work-life balance’, and you’ve heard the analogy of ‘putting on your own oxygen mask first’ a million times. You know that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs around, that teacher burnout is real and is probably happening all around you. But with a mountain of work on your desk, higher than ever before expectations and an awful lot of catching up to do after two years of living in a pandemic, how are you supposed to find time to unwind?

Also, the onus for change always seems to be on teachers. A quick google of ‘teacher burnout’ brings up countless articles on how you, the teacher, is the one to stop striving for perfection by overworking. But what if it isn’t you that is putting yourself under pressure, what if you are working in a culture that promotes overwork and exhaustion? As an ex full-time teacher, I often felt like this – where sometimes working every hour still wasn’t enough and we are left feeling demoralised and burned out. 

A study by York St John University and the University of York found that burnout is one of the main causes of teachers leaving the profession, naming emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced accomplishment as the three symptoms of this. 

On average, one third of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. So, what are we doing to teachers to make them leave, and what can be done about it? The three factors mentioned above perfectly summarise the effects that the teaching profession can have on individuals. Let’s take a look at each one and then how you can help yourself, or teachers in your school to overcome them. 

Emotional exhaustion

Signs of burnout or emotional exhaustion are very real and unfortunately very common among teachers. Education Support found that 74% of teachers and education staff said that an inability to switch off from work is the main cause of a poor work-life balance. Added to that, teachers do around 20% of their work outside of teaching hours, which results in the loss of down-time and a chance to catch up with friends and family. 

Common signs of burn-out are:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sickness
  • Time off work 
  • No time for own activities
  • Poor sleep
  • Loss of confidence
  • Poor relationships with friends and family 

Depersonalisation

When teachers become very stressed in their role, they can start to move away from other members of staff, students, and life in general. They can lose confidence in themselves, and their abilities and start to retreat into themselves. This can be dangerous if unchecked and lead to dissatisfaction in the job and depression in the teacher. Regularly checking in with school staff by doing a mental health appraisal would be hugely beneficial for all schools to implement. The TES have published a great template for this here

Reduced accomplishment

If your heavy workload means that you never feel like you are achieving anything, either at work or at home, then this is a sign of burnout. It is important that you keep your goals realistic and achievable and that your school supports you with this. If you are a working parent, or someone with responsibilities outside of school, then this is especially important. Ignore the stay-late culture. Do not feel like you have to stay at school until a certain time if this is impacting your life. Do not compare yourself to other teachers who seem to be doing better and working harder, often they are struggling too.

Practical tips on how to avoid burnout 

Plan your working week

If days and weeks seem to roll into each other and boundaries with home and work are becoming blurred, then it is time to pick up your diary and work out the best and most effective times to work and then make sure that the rest of the time is left for you to relax and live your life. 

Only you know your exact schedule and which times of the day you work better. If you want to set your alarm early and work then, do that. Or maybe you’d rather stay late at school a couple of days a week which would mean you get to go home and switch off. Have a good think about your most productive times of the day and timetable those in for working hours. The rest of the time is yours. 

At the School Planner Company, we create fully customised planners for teachers which would help you to stay organised. Take a look here: https://www.schoolplanner.co.uk/teacher-planners/

Turn off the tech

Outside of working hours, turn off your phone and laptop and just enjoy watching a bit of TV, playing sports, reading, whatever it is that takes you to a different place. If the idea of this panics you then try just an hour at first, turn your phone off at 8 till 9, for example, and spend that time doing something totally unrelated to school. If you set a routine for switching off, both literally and metaphorically, it could become a habit that saves your mental health. 

Good enough is good enough 

Do not try to reinvent the wheel. Once I was busy spending my weekend planning when my husband said to me “surely if teachers are teaching from the same curriculum all over the country, why do you all need to do separate planning? Can’t you just use someone else’s?” It did stop me for a moment until I replied something about differentiation and every class having different interests and needs, but he did have a point.

You can find hundreds of brilliant resources and planning schemes online, and you can easily tweak these for your class. You don’t have to make all your resources from scratch and plan the most amazing lessons every day. Good enough is good enough. Ask your school if they have plans that you can reuse, have a hunt through resources and you might be surprised that some of the hard work has already been done for you.

Where to get additional support

  • If you are feeling ill and like you need help more urgently, contact your GP. 
  • Speak to someone in senior management at the school.
  • If you are an NQT then you can get additional support from your mentor or head teacher. 
  • Call the Education Support helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit their website which has some brilliant resources, articles, and ways to help. 
  • If you are a member of a union, try their website for help with mental health and managing workloads.
  • We have put together some tips for de-stressing and making day to day life easier in this blog article and have listed some resources and websites that can really help here.

In summary, a work-life balance is possible, but it takes change and effort on both sides – the school and the teaching staff need to be on the same page. By talking about mental health openly and calmly with your head of school, perhaps changes and allowances can be made. It is clear that major changes need to be made to existing frameworks and inspection bodies and that the effects of the pandemic need to be accounted for. Otherwise, we could risk losing good teachers, future and present.