A study carried out among 2,167 teachers in Flemish secondary schools has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional burden on teaching staff, leading to significantly more stress and anxiety. This has brought with it an increase in the risk of burnout.

Coincidentally, doctoral student Yanni Verhavert (VUB) had begun conducting surveys among teachers in September and November of 2019 and in January of 2020 as part of her PhD in Sports and Exercise Studies. โ€œMy PhD is about burnout and lifestyle,โ€ she says. โ€œThe pandemic gave me a unique opportunity to also study the influence of COVID-19 on burnout.โ€

Verhavert gathered data through validated questionnaire distributed to 2,167 secondary school teachers at 10 points in time between September 2019 and August 2021.

โ€œIn the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (March-April 2020), we observed a reduction in the risk of burnout, with less emotional strain and depersonalization and limited need for a recovery period,โ€ states Verhavert. โ€œWork recovery is a measurement of the capacity that a teacher has to recover from a work day. At that point in the study, the schools were closed, and the teachers were not actively teaching.โ€

This reduction was replaced by a substantial increase across all parameters following the first lockdown (May-June 2020). The risk of burnout shot up, and teachers were experiencing emotional exhaustion and an increased need for recovery. This can be attributed to a return to full-time teaching in a wholly different way, namely hybrid teaching. In addition, their health and the health of their pupils was put at risk, as the pandemic was still raging. On top of that, lockdown measures severely affected social networks that would normally allow them to vent their concerns, and โ€“ outside of a walk in a park โ€“ there was little in the way of relaxing activities.

โ€œData collected during the pandemic showed that the risk of burnout varied from 20.8% to 30.8%, and the number of teachers who needed work recovery time varied from 34% to 61.4%,โ€ says Verhavert. โ€œTeachers already run a higher risk of burnout than professionals in other sectors. According to a report issued by the Social and Economic Council of Flanders in 2022, the risk of burnout in the general population in Flanders is 13%."

Our results also show that fluctuations in figures for a risk of burnout and for the need for work recovery follow identical patterns. This is concerning because burnout can be more severe when the need for work recovery is high.โ€

The summer recess had a clear positive impact on burnout risk and work recovery time. The corona measures had relaxed, and the teachers had time off. Still, the risk of burnout and reported need for work recovery time was higher in the summer of 2021 than in 2020 (risk of burnout was 14.6% in 2020 compared to 20.9% in 2021; work recovery time was 34.0% vs. 39.8%).ย 

According to Verhavert, these figures provide an indication of the negative long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. โ€œThe percentage of burnout risk in the summer period of 2021 (20.9%) was almost exactly what it was in September/October of 2019 (20.8%),โ€ confirms Verhavert. โ€œThis indicates that teachers experienced such additional mental burden during the lockdown measures they were not able to sufficiently recover during the summer recess.โ€

Furthermore, during both the summers of 2020 and 2021, there was a measurable impact on teachersโ€™ sense of โ€œpersonal competenceโ€. In other words: They felt they had less mastery over their jobs than before. This could be attributed to a reluctance to go back to teaching face-to-face while the pandemic was still in a peak period. Self-doubt could also be the result of self-reflection during the summer holiday and a lack of interaction with pupils: During the school year, teachers receive immediate feedback.

Verhavert emphasises that her study once again demonstrates the importance of interventions to decrease the risk of burnout and work recovery time among secondary school teachers, particularly during difficult periods like the pandemic. โ€œWe advise policymakers and schools to develop tools and interventions to respond to the impact of the pandemic on teachersโ€™ mental health,โ€ she concludes. โ€œIn addition, teacher education programmes should incorporate โ€‹ online teaching in the curriculum, and practicing teachers should receive continued education in this area.โ€