RTRL.66: Burnout: A Review of Literature (Nápoles, 2022)


Nápoles, J. (2022). Burnout: A review of literature. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 40(2), 19-26. doi:10.1177/87551233211037669

What did the researcher want to know?

What is burnout and how can it be prevented?

What did the researcher do?

Nápoles conducted a literature review of existing scholarly resources and research studies pertaining to burnout in order to define the term, discuss factors contributing to burnout, and share possible remedies for burnout.

What did the researcher find?

Although it has been defined in a variety of ways, burnout can be regarded as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal job stressors that is characterized by (a) emotional exhaustion, (b) depersonalization/cynicism, and (c) a reduced sense of 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 and productivity at work” (p. 20).

While some researchers have argued that certain characteristics of individuals make them more susceptible to burnout, it is more widely believed that burnout is predominately the result of external factors. Nápoles reviewed one model for understanding how organizations contribute to burnout, which encompassed six factors that can lead to burnout in employees:

  • work overload
  • lack of control
  • insufficient reward
  • breakdown in community (i.e., loss of positive connection with others)
  • absence of fairness
  • conflicting values

Within music education, numerous factors have been found to be linked to burnout among music teachers:

  • inadequate support
  • non-instructional responsibilities
  • feelings of isolation
  • lack of recognition by others
  • unclear goals from administrators or colleagues
  • too much work
  • low salary
  • not enough equipment, etc.

Burnout can manifest as both physical and psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms of burnout can include exhaustion, insomnia, use of alcohol/drugs, weight loss or gain, high blood pressure, migraines, and increased cholesterol. Psychological symptoms can include detachment, boredom, cynicism, irritability, mental disfunction, sense of impotence, paranoia, disorientation, impatience, crankiness, rigidity, mistrust of others, and worry. One pair of researchers observed a five-stage pattern to burnout, which consists of (1) honeymoon stage, (2) fuel shortage, (3) chronic symptoms, (4) crisis, and (5) hitting the wall.

Researchers have recommended three areas of possible focus for preventing teacher burnout: (a) in-school contexts, (b) out-of-school contexts, and (c) through mentoring/induction programs. One strategy for preventing burnout within in-school contexts is through “job crafting,” which involves making self-initiated changes to one’s job demands and job resources to attain and/or optimize their personal goals. Nurturing positive interpersonal relationships at work is another way to increase job satisfaction.

In addition to shaping one’s in-school experiences, “the majority of suggestions for mitigating burnout related to finding a better balance between work activities and personal activities outside of work. Relaxation, exercise, cutting back on overtime or excessive hours, limiting job spillover, and emphasizing other aspects of life are common strategies suggested by researchers” (p. 23).

What does this mean for my classroom?

The prolonged and intense stress of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic may push even the most skilled and passionate of music educators to experience burnout. Having an awareness of the factors that contribute to burnout, the symptoms of burnout, and the five-stage pattern of burnout can help music teachers assess their own risk of experiencing burnout and take steps to prevent it. It can also be reassuring to know that certain experiences may be associated with burnout. For example, if you’re noticing that you have been feeling cynical about teaching lately, you may wonder, “What’s wrong with me? I used to love this job! Maybe I’m just not a good teacher any more.” If so, you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you! Instead, you might recognize this as a sign of burnout and take steps to alleviate it and prevent further burnout.

As Nápoles stresses, “A burned-out teacher is not as effective as one who has chosen to establish healthy boundaries around work” (p. 24). Teachers should be encouraged to “find avenues for separating from work activities and taking necessary time off to rejuvenate themselves” (p. 24). Music educators might also consider “job crafting”—adjusting aspects of their job to decrease time spent on draining tasks or interactions in favor of experiences that may be more fulfilling. One example Nápoles provides is to reduce the number of performances during the school year and spend class time in a different way, such as inviting a living composer to speak with students or trying a songwriting project.

Finally, it is incumbent upon administrators and school communities to take an active role in preventing teacher burnout. This includes treating teachers with respect, compensating them fairly, providing recognition, and acknowledging that teachers are human beings. “The public perception of the heroic teacher, always willing to work under any condition for the benefit of children, is unhelpful to teachers” (p. 24).

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