What Research Tells Us About Burnout

What are the factors leading to music teacher burnout, and how can you mitigate them in your work life?

by Jessica Nápoles – Professor of Choral Music Education at the University of North Texas – KCOMTEPS 2022 Featured Clinician

This article was reprinted with permission from the NAfME Teaching Music Magazine, April 2022, Vol. 29, Issue 4.

Burnout is an important issue that affects the teaching profession at large. However, only in the past 40 years has it received attention in the research literature. Two early investigators who examined the phenomenon were Herbert Freudenberger, a psychiatrist, and Christina Maslach, a social psychologist. In some countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, burnout is considered a medical condition. In the United States, however, it is usually diagnosed as a psychological condition.

D.L. Hamann (1990) defined burnout as a syndrome that occurred at an individual level, an intense psychological experience involving feelings, attitudes, motives, and expectations, and included distress, discomfort, dysfunction, and negative consequences. He described it as “stress that had gotten out of control” (p. 31). Moreover, he believed it was a leading cause of teacher ineffectiveness and a primary reason for ending a teaching career.

Maslach et al. (2001) defined it as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal job stressors. Three key dimensions of burnout emerged from Maslach’s systematic inquiry: (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization/cynicism, and (3) a decrease in personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion was defined as feelings of being overextended and depleted of one’s emotional resources. Depersonalization/cynicism referred to the negative, callous, or excessively detached response to various aspects of the job. Personal accomplishment was reduced when there were feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement/productivity at work. 

Factors Contributing to Burnout

Friedman and Rosenman (1980) believed burnout was more often associated with individuals who displayed personality and behavioral traits known as Type A behaviors. Perhaps because of their frequent need for social approval, these individuals were more greatly influenced by criticism due to their orientation toward achievement. In contrast, persons with Type B personalities were more easygoing and usually handled stress better.

The more widely accepted understanding is that elements of the job and organization contribute to burnout for the employee. Freudenberger (1977) pointed to longer hours and harder working conditions in tandem with less job recognition. Poor management and organization also contributed to job burnout. 

Arguing that burnout is not a problem of the individual but a problem of the social environment in which people work, Maslach and Leiter (1997) devised a model for understanding the ways in which organizations contributed to employee burnout. Burnout was more likely when there was a major mismatch between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who did the job. This mismatch was experienced in six ways: 

  • Work overload (work is more intense, work demands more time, work is more complex, work creates the exhaustion of overload)
  • Lack of control (when employees don’t feel that they can make any decisions or influence the processes that impact their work)
  • Insufficient reward (when employees do not receive recognition or do not feel intrinsic satisfaction)
  • Breakdown in community (when people lose a positive connection with others in the workplace)
  • Absence of fairness (when there is an inequity in workload, pay, or lack of respect)
  • Conflicting values (when the value requirements of the job do not match the personal values of the employee). 

They further argued that when the workplace did not recognize the human side of work, then burnout grew, carrying a high price with it. Maslach (1982b) recognized another institutional contributor to burnout. Institutional rules that structured the nature of the contact between employees and recipients sometimes trapped employees when the institution required them to meet with unwilling recipients. She provided an example of a therapist being forced to visit with a prisoner who was not interested in therapy. A natural extension in music contexts is teaching students who did not choose to enroll in a music class.

Specific to music teachers, Hamann and colleagues (Hamann & Daugherty, 1984; Hamann et al., 1987). linked burnout to professional demands. These included: (a) inadequate support, (b) noninstructional responsibilities, (c) feelings of isolation, (d) lack of recognition by administrators, other teachers, peers, parents, and students, (e) unclear goals from principals, music administration, and fellow music teachers, (f) too much work, (g) not enough salary, and (h) not enough equipment, room or budget. Jorgensen (2010) cautioned that we should not be surprised when music teachers experience burnout within a few years of beginning to teach, especially given the number of ways in which they are marginalized. There has been an overriding sense of powerlessness in the face of pervasive expectations by governments, businesses, religions, music professionals, and the public at large. Moreover, music teachers have not usually been consulted about relevant issues that affect them, including curriculum, disciplinary actions, and administrative policies. 

Effects of Burnout

Specific psychological effects of burnout align with the three dimensions of burnout (Maslach, 1982a): emotional exhaustion, depersonalization/cynicism, and decreased personal accomplishment. Individuals who experience burnout are emotionally exhausted. They feel drained and easily irritated. Depersonalization causes a negative shift in responses to others, with negative or inappropriate attitudes, retreating into a detached stance in an attempt at emotional self-preservation. A negative response toward oneself and one’s personal accomplishments yields low morale, withdrawal, reduced productivity, and inability to cope (Maslach, 1982a, 1982b). 

Burnout also negatively impacts job performance. Workers who feel burned out tend to be absent or tardy more frequently, invest less time and energy in their work and doing only what is absolutely necessary, and express little or no motivation or enthusiasm for the subject matter or for teaching (Maslach, 1982b; Pines, et al., 1981). 

Perhaps the most detrimental effect of diminished teacher performance is the negative impact on students. A burned-out teacher may not be receptive to answering questions or responding to student needs, not encouraging them to learn. Such teachers may also become unapproachable and unimaginative. Eager learners may experience frustration and boredom at the lack of challenge in the learning environment. 

Prevention of Burnout and Possible Remedies

Researchers have provided recommendations to prevent burnout and overall stress in three general categories: in-school contexts, out-of-school contexts, and through mentoring/induction programs. Stress can be reduced by changing the work environment or one’s internal responses to it. Alternatively, the situation can be ameliorated through a better work-life balance. 

Recommendations for in-school solutions have generally centered on being more prepared and engaged with the work environment. Hylton (1989) offered a few strategies for better time management, including reviewing objectives, planning ahead, and setting priorities by delegating nonmusical tasks where possible. Inasmuch as lack of classroom control promoted teacher burnout, Stern and Cox (1993) advised teacher development of an effective discipline and positive reinforcement strategy that was organized, clearly articulated, and consistently implemented. They also suggested that being prepared and well-organized on entering a classroom reduced stress.

Engagement is considered the positive antithesis of burnout (Freudenberger & Richelson, 1980; Maslach & Leiter, 1997; Schaufeli et al., 2009). Engagement is characterized by energy, involvement, and efficacy — the direct opposites of the three burnout dimensions. One possible way to increase engagement is through job crafting. Timms et al. (2012) defined job crafting as “the self-initiated changes that employees make in their own job demands and job resources to attain and/or optimize their personal (work) goals” (p. 173). Lee and McNaughtan (2017) surveyed collegiate music professors in the United States to see how they applied job crafting in their work to enhance revitalization. They found that 22% of faculty viewed changing their job roles as a precursor to rejuvenation. Some faculty changed their role from faculty to administrator; others spent more time on research, while others collaborated with colleagues. The authors concluded that simply providing autonomy for faculty to craft their work was a great tool to increase job satisfaction. 

Another way to increase job satisfaction is to develop and nurture positive interpersonal relationships. These may occur between teachers and students, parents, administrators, and other faculty. In fact, Heston et al. (1996) went as far as to recommend that positive relationships between teachers and students may initially need to take precedence over instructional and performance goals. They also advocated for closer liaisons between music teachers and administration, and other professionals, so that music educators were accepted as core faculty within the overall context of the school program. Other suggestions have included teaching new literature, creative rehearsal techniques (Stern & Cox, 1993), and periodic self-assessment (Smith & Haack, 2000).

Online teaching has been associated with isolation and loneliness (Dolan, 2011). Makarenko and Andrews (2017) found that online instructors were more susceptible to experiences of isolation and emotional distress than face-to-face instructors. Hogan and McKnight (2007) found similar results, stating that the well-being and mental health of online instructors was a significant cause for concern, with increased rates of burnout. They recommended that institutions should consult with online instructors regarding matters that impact their learning environments. Additionally, providing instructional support and reducing the teaching loads and number of students per online course were considered helpful.

The majority of suggestions for mitigating burnout relate to finding a better balance between work activities and personal activities. Relaxation, exercise, cutting back on overtime or excessive hours, limiting job spillover, and emphasizing other aspects of life are common strategies. 

Another important solution is to engage in appropriate boundary setting (Freudenberger & Richelson, 1980). Referencing marching band directors specifically, Shaw (2014) found that pressure from parents, students, and staff — as well as pressure to uphold the reputation of their band programs — were inhibitive aspects to work-life balance. Setting personal rules and making time for self and others was helpful for participants, especially through help from supportive people. While work-life balance was frequently referenced, practicing it was a more difficult task. Fitzpatrick (2013) discussed the many inhibitive factors to achieving this desired balance, especially a general lack of time, feeling of guilt, and perceived disparities in parental expectations between men and women. 

While one might predict that married individuals experience burnout at increased levels given the additional responsibilities, Maslach (1982b) found the opposite to be true. People who were single experienced the most burnout. She speculated that the family was an emotional resource rather than an emotional drain and that spouses and children made individuals more experienced in dealing with personal problems and emotional conflicts. She also pointed to the value of social approaches to coping; getting together with others (even outside of family settings) helped with companionship, insights, emotional support, feedback, and advice.

It is possible that burnout signals a problem of fit between the person and the job (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). In these cases, it may be necessary for the individual to find another path. Ideally, organizational inventions can occur to improve culture and establish processes for communication and conflict resolution. Seeking professional help is also advisable (Hamann, 1990). 

Implications for Music Education

Understanding the elements contributing to burnout can help educators notice their own responses to stressful contexts. For example, feeling emotionally exhausted can be a strong signal of disengagement from work. A reduced sense of personal accomplishment and a desire to detach from and depersonalize others are additional warnings of burnout. With both physical and psychological symptoms, teachers should engage in interventions when they notice they are beginning to anesthetize their feelings or turn to dysfunctional coping mechanisms through alcohol, overeating, or drugs. 

Some Takeaways About Burnout

  • Teachers need to feel engaged in their work to mitigate burnout. This engagement can occur through investment in interpersonal relationships, connecting with others in the school, and through lifelong learning. 
  • Finding joy in activities outside work, and a separation between work life and personal life are important ingredients of work-life balance that can help prevent burnout.
  • A mismatch in values and philosophies between the organization/school and the teacher may lead to disengagement.
  • Longer hours and harder working conditions along with less job recognition may lead to burnout.
  • Communication with others can produce ideas and solutions to many problems.

When considering potential remedies, one obvious implication from the research literature is to be well-prepared and organized, coming to class each day with a plan. Delegating simple tasks can benefit both the teacher and the student, developing leadership opportunities and increasing investment in the class. Additionally, taking the time to invest in students, parents, administrators, and colleagues can lead to increased high-quality interpersonal relationships. Finding work-life balance is not easy, but music educators must take necessary time off to rejuvenate themselves. Because teachers are hardworking and generous, many believe that making time for outside activities is selfish or unnecessary. However, given the data reflecting the negative impact on students, it is clear that a burned-out teacher is not as effective as one who has chosen to establish healthy boundaries around work. 

Sometimes the stressors contributing to burnout occur externally. Teachers cannot assume all the responsibility or work harder to solve problems that they have no agency to solve. Administrators/school systems that marginalize their teachers by not including them in decisions relevant to their discipline or overloading them without providing commensurate financial compensation can send a very strong message that teachers are not valued. Counselors who assign unwilling students to music classes contribute to this marginalization. There will be times when the mismatch between teachers and administration creates an irreparable lack of fit, and teachers may need to seek alternative employment. Given Hancock’s (2008) finding that school conditions and lack of support contribute to teacher migration and attrition and that 16% of teachers migrate to another school or leave the profession altogether (Hancock, 2009), it is clear that not enough is being done within the schools to keep teachers. 

When possible, teachers should consider job crafting or changing something about the job itself to make it more rewarding. Music teachers have the privilege of choosing repertoire, selecting performance opportunities, and, in some cases, frequency. It is possible that learning new music, perhaps written by a living composer willing to speak to the students, will fuel new excitement into the job. Additionally, music teachers may consider performances in the community and other forms of service that broaden their goals outside the immediate environment. Partnerships with area schools, adult community groups, or local universities may also provide fresh perspectives. 

With the prevalence of online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of isolation and loneliness have been magnified. Webinars and virtual conferences have helped keep teachers connected. Participation in professional development — a part of lifelong learning — can also help reduce burnout and feelings of isolation. 

Administrators at every level need to recognize the human side of work, acknowledge music teachers as core faculty, and seek ways to increase teacher engagement and recognition. As Freudenberger and Richelson (1980) observed over 40 years ago, burnout is robbing our society of what it can least afford to lose: high achievers, the people of action and purpose to whom the rest of us look for leadership and inspiration. 

JESSICA NÁPOLES (Jessica.Napoles@unt.edu) is a professor of choral music education and the conductor of the concert choir at the University of North Texas in Denton. A native of Florida with a Cuban-American background, Nápoles taught in the public schools of Miami and Orlando, Florida. This article was originally published as “Burnout: A Review of the Literature” in the February 2022 Update: Applications of Research in Music Education and is shortened and adapted here with permission.


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