May 11, 2023
Jennifer Vaughan, Ashley Hall
Last Updated: May 11 2023
The literature review in this paper is a review of what we currently know about chronic job-related stress and burn-out as of the summer of 2021. This is about to radically change. No one could have predicted the loss, grief, and pressures that would befall the world. In education, distance and hybrid learning doubled and sometimes tripled workloads; but this cannot compare to what the medical establishment has been and is still facing. The social, economic, and political upheaval in recent months has added layers of instability and uncertainty. Social isolation, then social distancing, and even technology all play a part. Substance abuse, including alcoholism, has skyrocketed; domestic violence is up; reports of mental illness has increased; and both statistics of suicide and homicide have reached new heights. It will be years before we know what this all means, but I do not doubt the research on chronic stress will continue to expand exponentially as organizational scientists and psychologists dissect the fallout.
There does need to be more research. The frame of my literature review is from the work of Christina Maslach and her esteemed colleagues, experts in the field. There is a lot known about what “job-related chronic stress” is and is not, who is affected, and why. There is even a growing amount of medical and psychological evidence about the effects of burnout. However, despite countless books and articles on self-care, there is very little scientific evidence to show that self-care is effective. In fact, the only proven strategy seems to be quitting employment or at least working much less, which is rarely a viable option. (Interestingly, Iceland just completed a national study on a shortened work week and found it to be “a resounding success.” (Icelandic Work Week Study).
Any school, whether public or private, can have a culture that encourages the development or prevalence of burnout among the faculty and staff. In the worst environments, employees may feel helpless to help themselves. Student quality of care suffers. While this does not remove the individual’s responsibility for her own self-care, many employees in today’s workforce do not know they can set boundaries or ask for better: working yourself “to the nub” is the norm. Educators may feel hesitant to acknowledge a problem or take measures to protect themselves for fear of looking “weak” or “incompetent”, even if they recognize the problem at all. These educators can certainly not model or teach skills they themselves do not possess.
Most adults understand that children may not hear what you say, but they copy what you do. Commonly, parents and teachers alike are told to not just “talk the talk, but walk the walk.” Kids are watching us. They are watching how we cope with adversity. They are watching how others treat us. They are watching to see whether we develop boundaries, whether we speak up when we see injustice, and whether we show value to not only them, but to our families and to ourselves. The school is their first look at a workplace, and they learn from us how they may expect to treat themselves or be treated by others. By watching the women and men around them, Ashley Hall students will see first-hand how to be educated women (and men) who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to face the challenges of society with confidence.
Now, for a disclaimer. This paper is interspersed with vignettes, describing independent school faculty members who are struggling from “burnout.” All of these are true stories. Either these situations happened to me in previous employment or are the stories of colleagues from other independent school communities. However, none of the vignettes described have happened to me at Ashley Hall nor are they representative of Ashley Hall faculty or staff. Any resemblance to an Ashley Hall employee is purely coincidental.
Please download the PDF at top right or the Word version to access this literature review in its entirety. The full document includes the following chapters: