HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
January 16, 2024
ASCD Blog

The Paradox of Administrator Burnout

author avatar
How can leaders address teachers’ needs when they themselves are burned out?
Leadership
The Paradox of Administrator Burnout
Credit: Vikky Mir / Shutterstock
Burnout is a paradox. A growing body of research reveals that burnout is not, as we often assume, a personal issue, but an organizational one. As journalist and author Jennifer Moss puts it in the Harvard Business Review:
We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience—the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, Band-Aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle…. Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy.
But what happens when the leaders are burned out?
Education leaders don’t work in a vacuum with unilateral power to create and implement a burnout strategy across an organization. Even building principals work within an elaborate web of politics, balancing demands from parents, union leaders, district leaders, the school board, and more. They may or may not have the power to address organizational issues triggering teacher burnout, and they generally can’t control salaries, teacher workload, or social respect. In many places, their hands are tied when it comes to addressing student behavior, state mandates, and other drivers of teacher frustration.
Leaders can feel pretty helpless, actually. If you broke down when you read “It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy,” I get it. Are you kidding me? Another thing I have to do? I’m barely keeping myself together, and now I’m responsible for other people’s well-being? The suggestion alone can deplete a leader’s last ounce of energy.
On top of all that, leaders themselves may be experiencing toxic work environments, which can quickly induce burnout. Some districts have responded to the chaos caused by turnover, politics, and low morale with iron-fisted regimes, eliminating administrators’ agency in the name of presenting a united front. The feeling of being a cog in a machine with no particular purpose fuels administrator burnout and, when combined with constant fear of termination, could make any leader dread their morning commute.

Unpacking the Paradox

On one hand, we know it’s ineffective to propose individual solutions (like self-care) to an organizational problem. On the other hand, leaders may be too powerless, fearful, or exhausted to enact organizational solutions. On yet another hand (yes, we are now expected to have three), who is supposed to make the organizational change if not the leaders?

The goal is neither to put a Band-Aid over the symptoms of burnout nor to urge you to make organizational changes when you may not have the power to do so.

Author Image

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have three suggestions that may help. The goal is neither to put a Band-Aid over the symptoms of burnout nor to urge you to make organizational changes when you may not have the power to do so. The goal is, rather, to acknowledge and work through your feelings in a productive, healthy way. All three suggestions can be done at work—because you shouldn’t have to spend your entire home life mitigating the damage caused by your work life.

Say what you think and feel. 

Say it to yourself, say it to your friends and family, and say it to your coworkers if you can. Many educators have been trained to bury unpleasant truths behind a veneer of chippy optimism, and as a result, many of us won’t admit to feeling angry, scared, or trapped. We fear others will see us as villains if we’re not joyful all the time. By replacing this fear with brave truthfulness, we can show up as our honest selves, not as falsely optimistic puppets. 
Look, I know you can’t start a staff meeting with, “Guys, I feel so desperate and hopeless today,” and I definitely don’t recommend telling your boss exactly what you think of him at all times. I do believe, however, that you can acknowledge that you feel the same anxiety and exhaustion teachers do. You can find a way to vocalize the emotions that are preventing you from being who you want to be at work. At that staff meeting, for example, you might say, “It seems like it’s harder and harder to come to work each day, doesn’t it? I feel just as burned out as you guys. We’re definitely facing tougher obstacles than anything we’ve seen before.” This way, you’re saying what you feel while building empathy with teachers, and you’re avoiding the temptation to plaster a cheery veneer over your feelings of desperation.
I don’t claim that this will eliminate your burnout, but I do think you will have an easier time showing up at work if you don’t feel like you have to fake it all the time. For your own sake, don’t gloss over the difficult stuff with peppy euphemisms or pretend you’re fine when you’re not.

Combat toxic positivity whenever you see it. 

You can do this even if you don’t have the power to make sweeping organizational change, making it an ideal strategy for leaders who feel trapped. Toxic positivity—feeling compelled to project only positive emotions while denying negative ones—inflames burnout by making people feel unseen, shamed, or even deficient. When you see coworkers pressure each other into “staying positive” or respond to serious concerns with happy platitudes, jump in with a better response. 

Toxic positivity—feeling compelled to project only positive emotions—inflames burnout by making people feel unseen, shamed, or even deficient.

Author Image

When, for example, someone is trying to express frustration, don’t let the conversation end with, “It will get better,” “Keep on keepin’ on,” or other punts. Model truly empathetic responses: “Those feelings are totally valid,” “I’m here for you, no matter what,” or “That’s a really hard situation. How can I help?” Helping your colleagues move beyond the pressure to be positive can improve your overall school or office culture, addressing both your own and others’ burnout. It will, in fact, enable you to embrace the first suggestion, saying what you think and feel more easily.

Understand your burnout, and make a plan.

Identify and analyze what’s causing your burnout, and use this information to decide your next steps. Moss’s article cites research identifying the top five causes of burnout: unfair treatment, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of support, and unreasonable time pressure. Your own experience may be a blend of these and more factors, but identifying the specific elements will help you respond. If you’re lost in a sea of swirling emotions, unable to name the cause of your distress, you can’t do anything to save the situation. Even if you have the most empathetic boss, she can’t help you if you simply say you’re “burned out.” 
Describe—to yourself, then to others—what’s going on as specifically as possible: “I experience unfair treatment at work when I am excluded from decisions that impact me,” “I am shouldering an unmanageable pile of tasks,” or “My supervisor has changed my task list several times this month.” 
Once you can describe the specific problem, you’ll be able to propose a specific solution: “Would it be possible for me or one of my peers to sit in on those meetings so we have a voice in the decision?” “Can we talk about delegating some of those tasks?” “I’d like to maintain an ongoing task list and review it with you each week.” 
Some causes of burnout can be fixed through concrete suggestions like these, especially if your team or supervisor is willing to listen. Other causes can’t be fixed. You might be in such a dysfunctional or toxic environment that nothing you can do will change it. That’s when you need to seriously consider the cost of staying in your current role. 
These three ideas may not eradicate your burnout, but they can help you navigate and—ideally—reduce it. Leaders, I know you’re in a tough spot. Burnout is an organizational issue, and you’re theoretically in charge of the organization, but somehow you’re also a victim of its flaws. You’re trying to “fix” yourself and the organization at the same time, whether or not you even have the power to do so. It’s an infuriating, contradictory position. Don’t beat yourself up if you and your staff are all feeling burned out together, but do spend some time working to create a more open environment—one in which you can name and improve the root causes of burnout, one at a time.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at a large unit district in the Chicagoland area. She holds masters degrees in educational leadership and English Literature, and she has authored several print and online articles in Educational Leadership and The Learning Professional.

Learn More

ASCD is dedicated to professional growth and well-being.

Let's put your vision into action.
Related Blogs
View all
undefined
Leadership
Why Leaders Must Learn the Science of Reading
Linda Rhyne
2 weeks ago

undefined
Nurturing Assistant Principals’ Enthusiasm
Baruti K. Kafele
3 weeks ago

undefined
How Should Schools Support New Teachers Right Now?
Kate Stoltzfus
2 years ago

undefined
Designing Strategic Elementary Schedules
David James
2 months ago

undefined
Q&A: Principal Hamish Brewer on Leaving a Legacy
Emma Holdbrooks
1 month ago
Related Blogs
Why Leaders Must Learn the Science of Reading
Linda Rhyne
2 weeks ago

Nurturing Assistant Principals’ Enthusiasm
Baruti K. Kafele
3 weeks ago

How Should Schools Support New Teachers Right Now?
Kate Stoltzfus
2 years ago

Designing Strategic Elementary Schedules
David James
2 months ago

Q&A: Principal Hamish Brewer on Leaving a Legacy
Emma Holdbrooks
1 month ago