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The impact of emotional labour on teacher burnout

The impact of emotional labour on teacher burnout

4 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Teaching is an emotionally demanding profession and burnout can happen regularly. This isn’t just because of the stressful nature of the large workloads and long hours; on top of this, teachers can have an impact on students’ academic results as well as their emotional welfare, well-being, and mental health.

Being able to provide effective support requires teachers to be particularly skilled in managing their own emotions well. Confronted with the wide range of challenging scenarios that schools can present, this is no trivial task. In light of this, managing emotions at work, or “emotional labour”, can take a great level of effort for teachers. This emotional burden likely has a strong relation to teachers’ experience of burnout.

Reducing teacher burnout is a challenging feat, given that many of the stressors which contribute to burnout are out of teachers’ control, such as the wider school policy, curriculum, the education system as a whole and the politics surrounding this. But emotional labour is a factor that teachers can actually do something about, to reduce the likelihood of burning out…

Recently, a meta-analysis of the evidence has shed light on the relationship between the strategies teachers use to manage their emotions (their “emotional labour strategies”), burnout, and their overall job satisfaction. We’ve taken a look at the research, to see what we can learn from this about how to help teachers manage their emotions at work, for their own benefit as well as the benefit of their students.

What is burnout?

Christina Maslach, social psychologist and prominent researcher in the field of burnout, defines burnout as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job”. It consists of three key dimensions:

  • Extreme exhaustion;
  • Feeling disconnected from the job (referred to as “depersonalisation”);
  • Lacking belief in one’s own accomplishments (referred to as the “self-efficacy” dimension).

According to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020, between April and October last year, 74% of educators reported experiencing at least one work-related burnout symptom, be this physical, psychological, or behavioural. Even before the pandemic, the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019 indicated that 49% of teachers felt their workplace had a negative impact on their mental health and well-being.

What is emotional labour?

Emotional labour in the workplace means managing your feelings and how you express them so you can fulfil the emotional requirements of your job. This includes:

  • Surface acting – Faking emotions and hiding your true inner feelings. No effort is made to actually feel the “fake” emotions.
  • Deep acting – Putting a conscious effort into feeling and expressing an emotion that is required but different to how you genuinely feel.
  • Genuine expression – Expressing naturally felt emotions and showing how you genuinely feel.
Equip your school staff with the skills to best support their students’ well-being and stress management in the lead up to exams.

What the research says

A group of researchers in Hong Kong reviewed over 170 samples and gathered the experiences of 33,248 teachers, finding that:

  • High surface acting in teachers led to the extreme exhaustion and depersonalisation dimensions of burnout, and lower teacher satisfaction;
  • High deep acting in teachers lead to higher satisfaction, but also to the “self-efficacy” dimension of burnout;
  • Genuine expression was associated with reduced burnout and higher teacher satisfaction.

What does this mean?

This research is in line with previous findings which have also suggested that emotional labour in teachers may have undesirable long-term consequences. The findings suggest that, in order to feel happier at work and reduce the likelihood of experiencing burnout, teachers are better off relying on true emotional expression rather than trying to hide or change how they feel.

Others have suggested that teachers may sometimes benefit from deep acting and suppressing their own personal emotions. For example, when students or their parents are in any way dissatisfied with their education, it is the teachers who are confronted with and have to deal with this, even though the likely cause was beyond their control and part of the wider school system. So, some people argue that deep acting may protect teachers from their own emotions they might feel in these scenarios, such as guilt. 

While this is also a valuable viewpoint, there’s no denying that long-term repression or faking of emotions is emotionally exhausting, unhealthy, and not ideal for optimising teachers’ job satisfaction and well-being. If it is appropriate and professional for teachers to suppress their true emotions in a given situation at work, it is important that they make the time and space to later acknowledge these emotions. This could be through talking about it with a colleague or family member, having supervision, or simple emotional processing strategies such as keeping a diary or jotting their feelings down on paper.

Final thoughts

Teaching is one of the most burnout-prone professions. But in order to provide high-quality teaching for their students and support students’ mental health and well-being too, teachers themselves need to be mentally healthy and have optimum levels of well-being.

Research suggests that one of the key things teachers can do to avoid burnout is to avoid relying on faking, suppressing or changing their emotions and express their naturally-felt emotions instead. Sometimes, the demands of the job may mean that teachers need to temporarily suppress or hide their true emotions, but it is important that they allow themselves to later acknowledge, recognise and understand these emotions.

For more information on this topic, please do have a read of our blog on How Schools can help Prevent Teacher Burnout.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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