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Dealing with Staff Burnout

In education there is a long-standing belief: The more hours you work, the better you are at your job. Consider the following:


Administrators who work long hours are "dedicated to their job."

Teachers who never leave school are "committed to their work.”

Staff who work through lunch are "doing what’s best for kids.” 

 

Today’s school leaders must grapple with the paradoxical reality of education: this is a profession full of passionate individuals who are prone to severe burnout. When they ignore this reality, administrators unassumingly compound the workaholic narrative.

 

Instead, leaders must remind staff of the dangers of overwork while also modeling healthy boundaries. Only after their leader prioritizes well-being will educators feel empowered to do the same.



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Question: Does working more hours result in greater productivity?

 

According to the CDC, people who work long hours are less productive than those who maintain 40-hour workweeks. Work more than 50 hours – as most administrators report they do – and efficiency worsens. Employees who work 50 hours only “produce” 37 hours of work, while employees who work 55 hours only “produce” 30 hours of work.


This data is the crux of a philosophy I like to call the 40-hour workweek mentality.


A 40-hour workweek mentality prioritizes quality output over hours worked. When using this approach, leaders should tell their employees, “You must work your 40 hours and get your job done at a high level. How you get there … well that’s up to you.”

 

The benefits are clear: reduced burnout, boosted efficiency, and enhanced creativity. By trusting them to deliver within their 40-hour commitment, employees feel high levels of trust and autonomy. In turn, this allows staff to dedicate their energy to what truly matters on a schedule that works for them.

 

“This sounds great in business, but you can’t do this in schools,” you may be thinking. “We have students to worry about!”

 

Certainly, embracing a 40-hour workweek mentality in a profession with such prescribed hours can be challenging. However, administrators who wish to change the workaholic narrative must be willing to change their thinking about traditional work hours.


Consider a secretary who spends all night tackling a mountain of paperwork. As a result, this highly-motivated individual put in several more hours than their 8-hour workday suggests. Under the 40-hour workweek mentality, this individual would have the freedom to leave work early on Friday to get a head start on a family vacation - assuming their job is being done at a high level.


Next, imagine an athletic director staying late on a Tuesday night to supervise a basketball game. While their contract hours suggest a normal 8:00am to 4:00pm schedule, this individual just completed a 12 hour day. According to the 40-hour workweek mentality, this individual should be given the flexibility to come to work late or leave work early later in the week - assuming their job is being done at a high level.


"That's easy for office staff," skeptics might say. "But what about teachers?"

 

While teachers' schedules are less flexible due to having students for most of the day, school leaders must seek opportunities to apply the 40-hour workweek mentality. First and foremost, teachers should never be given work that cannot be done during contracted hours. When school leaders implement new initiatives, they must allocate time for staff to complete work during contracted hours as opposed to assigning "home" work.


Second, leaders must ensure that teachers get protected planning time throughout the day. Teachers who work more than 40 hours often do so for two reasons: lesson planning or grading work. Therefore, leaders much protect planning time (before school, after school, and during a teacher's planning period) as much as possible to allow them to do this work. While certain meetings (PLC and faculty) are often necessary, administrators should avoid wasting teacher planning time at all costs.

 

While this all sounds great, there is one major barrier to the 40-hour workweek mentality: Perception. In a culture where hard work is praised, some might raise eyebrows at secretaries who leaves early, an athletic director who comes in late, or a teacher who follows students out the door.

 

Therefore, it is crucial to address these perceptions head-on. Administrators must remind employees of the 40-hour workweek mentality while also trusting employees to navigate their weekly schedule; the worst thing a supervisor can do is promote this approach while also questioning the whereabouts of their employees.

 

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Another important topic to discuss is after-hours communication.

A large number of educators think they must remain glued to their phone in case "something happens at work." While at times true emergencies may arise, generally these matters can wait until the following day.

School leaders cannot sit back and assume staff understand communication at night and during weekends is unnecessary. Instead, leaders must actively remind employees they have permission to disconnect.


Leaders must actively remind employees they have permission to disconnect.

One powerful method for reinforcing work-life balance is by facilitating a conversation about communication expectations. When employees have an opportunity to discuss timelines for responding to email, texts, and phone calls, they realize not every communication needs an immediate response. The end result of the discussion is a communication protocol – an agreed-upon timeline for responding to various modes of communication.

I have implemented a communication protocol as both a principal and a superintendent. While some of the nuances may vary, the gist of our protocol is as follows:

Email = respond within 48 hours (excludes weekends)

Text = respond that day

Call with voicemail or follow-up text = respond ASAP

Call without voicemail or follow-up text = respond as needed


Besides giving staff permission to disengage from their phone, this exercise allows teammates to hold each other accountable. Unfortunately, administrators are often some of the worst offenders when it comes to unhealthy communication.

Some bosses are way too overbearing and expect communication at all hours ... while others are incredibly hard to get ahold of, even during emergencies. Having a communication protocol holds all parties accountable to reasonable communication standards.


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"But what if I enjoy work and don't mind working long hours," you may be wondering. "Is this wrong?"

 

Some staff find great satisfaction in doing their job at high levels. These high performers not only produce great work outcomes, they also do an excellent job balancing life outside of work. Letting these employees proceed like normal is completely fine.  


Personally, I feel a sense of a sense of purpose by doing my job well. Oftentimes, this desire to push myself professionally results in me working well past the 40 hours. However, I have learned I am most productive when I am purposeful about disconnecting from work. Protecting my time on nights and weekends allows me to be hyper-focused and ultra-productive during the workday.


Protecting my time on nights and weekends allows me to be hyper-focused and ultra-productive during the workday.

Nonetheless, school leaders must be cautious of people who are have a reputation for always working. Not only are staff who work unusually long hours typically less efficient than their counterparts, at times these people have ulterior motives for working extended hours. Such employees can be placed into four categories:

 

The Show Off: These employees love to brag hours they work. They constantly remind co-workers in person and on social media about how many hours they complete.

 

The Complainer: These workers say they love putting in extra work ... but then manage to find ways to complain about how much is on their plate. You can't have it both ways.


The Loafer: These people never leave work. These people also never get anything done. They may not show off or complain, but productivity levels do not match hours worked.

 

The Avoider: These staff say they love putting in extra work but don't appear happy or healthy. Often, these employees kill time at work to avoid issues at home.

 

In all four cases, leaders must have the courage to address these individuals. Left unchecked, these employees make colleagues feel inadequate for "only" working 40-hour weeks.


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Beyond encouraging the ideas listed above, here are seven more ideas to consider when combating staff burnout:


New Initiatives: As was previously mentioned, administrators should avoid giving employees work that cannot be done during contracted hours. When school leaders implement new initiatives, they must allocate time for staff to complete work during contracted hours as opposed to assigning "home" work.


Pay: At times, administrators will ask employees to complete tasks that must be done outside "normal" work hours. When this happens, administrators should consider paying employees for their time. While work expectations vary depending on employee group, administrators must remember that time is money; so when employees are told to work nights and/or weekends, compensation may be necessary.


Work Days: Although teachers should be given planning time before school, after school, and during the day, in most cases this isn't enough time for teachers to get all their work done. Therefore, school leaders must use professional development days as opportunities to lessen the load for teachers, as opposed to increasing the teacher workload.


Our district now uses 50% of our PD time to give teachers time for planning.

 

Eat Lunch: One of the most common "badge of honor" behaviors in education is skipping lunch. School staff are notorious for working through lunch because they have “too much work to do." Ironically, any time lost is more than made up for by skyrocketing afternoon productivity as a result of eating a healthy lunch.

 

Positive Response: School leaders have a habit of making staff feel bad for taking their personal days. Rather than immediately think about all the drawbacks of an employee absence, bosses should enthusiastically respond to requests and make employees feel comfortable about taking time off.


Model: Leaders become their own worst enemies when they encourage staff to take time off but never leave work themselves. Leaders: use vacation days and stay home when you're sick. If you really feel compelled to work, fine; just do it from somewhere other than the office.

 

Be Careful: Management should be weary of attendance incentives. Although staff attendance and substitute shortages are a major concern in many districts, placing too much emphasis on absenteeism will result in staff feeling like they can't miss any time.

 

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Leaders who understand the correlation between staff wellbeing and job performance must consistently remind employees that it's okay to disconnect from work.

 

When school leaders regularly communicate the dangers of burnout and give staff permission to maintain a healthy work-life balance, employees will feel empowered to reject the workaholic "badge of honor." 


 

If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.

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