How to Combat Burnout: A Guide for Instructors

Professional Development | Today's Learner
Professional Development, Work/Life Balance

Article Summary

  • One in five employees and four out of ten students report feeling overwhelmed.
  • Instructors are challenged to recognize students experiencing trauma while staving off the compassion fatigue that limits their teaching.
  • Understanding the warning signs of burnout can help you quickly identify and address symptoms for you and your students.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In today’s hyper-connected digital age, instructors, students and professionals are under increasing pressure to do more, more often. Functioning at this pace can make it difficult to maintain enthusiasm and commitment to studies and instruction. When unchecked, this kind of pressure can lead to an all-too-common problem: burnout.

But what is burnout? More importantly, how can you recognize the warning signs in yourself and your students before it negatively impacts your instruction—and their learning?

We wondered the same thing, so we’re diving into the burnout problem. We’ll explore the telltale signs and highlight some useful strategies you and your students can use to avoid this common pitfall.

Burnout In and Out of the Classroom

With one in five employees and four out of ten students reporting feeling overwhelmed, the message is clear: burnout is a serious problem. But what exactly IS burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, mental or emotional exhaustion caused by excessive stress. While burnout affects all professionals, it can be particularly hard on instructors—leaving them drained and unable to effectively teach students. Moreover, burnout makes it hard for students to stay engaged as they work toward their educational goals.

Consider this:

  • According to one study, around 40% of mental health professionals report emotional exhaustion with 20% reporting depersonalization.
  • Research conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) indicated that 41.6% of students list anxiety as the top concern they face.
  • Research indicates that higher education instructors who reported feeling emotionally exhausted directly and negatively impacted their students’ educational outcomes.

The numbers don’t lie—burnout is hindering the ability of instructors to positively influence learners, students to master core concepts and professionals to excel in their careers. Knowing this, it’s crucial to recognize the types and signs of burnout common in academia.

What Are the Various Forms of Burnout?

Too often, we equate burnout to stress. However, burnout comes in many shapes and sizes, making it difficult to identify and address. To ensure your instruction and your students’ learning aren’t thwarted by burnout, we’re outlining the forms most prevalent in and out of the classroom.

Compassion Fatigue:

Also known as, “helper syndrome,” compassion fatigue is a state of physical or physiological distress that occurs from ongoing interactions with people in need. Whether you’re working with a student undergoing trauma or preparing students to make a difference in the lives of people that are, compassion fatigue refers to the loss of compassion from overexposure to suffering. When preparing her Social Work students to combat compassion fatigue in their future careers, Adjunct Professor at Simmons University, Renee Rawcliffe had this to say:

“Look at your whole self, [and conduct] physical and mental prep. Physical: exercise, breathing, nutrition, making good decisions—what everyone should be doing in life—all this applies to social workers even more. [It] doesn’t have to be a huge life changing event, could be something new like listening to podcasts. Limit exposure to things that stress you out, like the news and social media and increase the things that make you happy. It’s constant work.”

Considering over 34 million children under 18 have experienced at least one serious childhood trauma, instructors are faced with the challenge of not only recognizing students experiencing trauma, but also staving off the compassion fatigue that would limit their ability to meet and effectively engage those students. Furthermore, the importance of recognizing compassion fatigue is only compounded in classes where students are training to work with trauma victims in their future professions.


The most common form of burnout, overload, refers to the fatigue, inefficiency and disparagement that a person experiences when there’s too much on their plate. Whether it’s students juggling classwork; instructors balancing teaching, planning and grading; or professionals navigating the demands of their jobs—overload is everywhere and impacts nearly everyone.


Often the result of feeling helpless at work or in class, neglect burnout occurs when things don’t turn out the way we hoped—which can cause us to stop trying. Typically mirroring the symptoms of imposter syndrome, neglect burnout results in a person feeling unqualified for their current position. For instructors, neglect burnout might make it difficult to balance the requirements of teaching while navigating interactions with fellow faculty. It can also have a direct effect on a student’s mindset—a critical component of successful learning outcomes and career readiness.

While knowing the various forms of burnout you and your students may experience is paramount, understanding the warning signs can help you quickly identify and address it. To help, we’ve listed some of burnout’s most common symptoms:

The Warning Signs of Burnout


  • Feeling tired and drained often
  • Lowered immunity or frequent sickness
  • Frequent headaches or muscle pain
  • Insomnia or change in sleep habits
  • Loss of appetite, hunger pangs or frequent overeating


  • Sense of failure or self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless or defeated
  • Detachment or depersonalization
  • Decreased satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook


  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolation from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope
  • Skipping work or class, coming in late and leaving early

Strategies to Help You and Your Students Tackle Burnout

As a busy educator, it can feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day—making it even harder to address the effects of burnout. To ensure you’re making the biggest impact on your students and equipping them with the skills they need to succeed, we’ve collected some useful strategies you can use to keep you and your students at the top of your game.


Taking the time to prioritize personal needs makes a big difference when managing stress. Focusing on these needs—and demonstrating the importance of self-care to your students—can be the key to unlocking consistent, effective instruction and better engagement. When teaching her students about practicing self-care, Rawcliffe shared her approach:

“I spend a lot of time talking about self-care, managing expectations and having [students] set up goals for themselves. Helping them figure out how to negotiate all the balls they’re juggling. Something is going to fall, so they have to plan for [it]. I like to be clear with them about what my expectations are so there are no gray areas. But I am acutely aware that life problems come up, and sometimes you can’t help that.” 

Physical Exercise:

It’s no secret that exercise helps improve your health and overall well-being, but did you know that research indicates physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of burnout? That’s because exercise allows you to put aside the stress for a time, getting you out of your head and into your body. Exercise also increases the body’s production of endorphins—helping you relax and proactively tackle daily tasks.

Job Crafting:

When things get tough, a common reaction is to just “grind through it,” but this can exacerbate the symptoms of burnout. A strategy developed by Yale researchers—known as Job Crafting—is the process of subtly shifting focus from the difficulties one experiences to something more enjoyable. For instructors, this might include retooling your lesson-planning routine to leave time for some fun activities. For students, it could be adjusting study habits or schedules to fit in time with friends. The point is, small shifts in focus can lead to big changes that curb burnout.

Time Management:

As you’ve likely noticed in your professional experience, time management is a critical skill. However, we often limit our time management efforts to focus strictly on our work, leaving little time for crucial things like sleep, nutrition and self-care. Adding some personal time in to your routine can help ensure important activities and tasks unrelated to work don’t fall by the wayside.

Less Burnout, Better Instruction and Learning

By recognizing the types and symptoms of burnout—and learning the strategies to combat it—you’re taking a proactive approach to improving your quality of life while teaching your students the skills to do the same. When you prevent burnout in yourself, you’re more prepared to give your students your best. Plus, understanding burnout enables you to provide your students with the skills they need to manage the stress they’ll experience in class and in their future fields.

For more tips you can use to engage students and equip them with the skills they need for career success while optimizing instruction prep, download our ebook, 21st-Century Skills and Digital Education: How to Get Students Job Ready.