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“The goal is to help the affected person in solving problems“

“The goal is to help the affected person in solving problems“

Photo: Picture of a smiling woman in black and white

Only those who are tough and able to quickly adjust to changing situations will be good teachers in the long run. But their high level of commitment essentially becomes the downfall of many educators, because they all too rarely get any appreciation for it. spoke with Stefanie Morgenroth, educator at the University of Wuppertal, who among others researches the subject of burnout. Teacher stress is a focal topic all over the world. Burnout and early retirement can be the cause of too much stress. Why does this occupation group in particular suffer from stress and how do teachers react to it?

Stefanie Morgenroth: The teaching profession is among the “helping“ professions where you have to work a lot with other people like it is also the case for caregivers and nurses for instance. In this job you have to respond to other people a lot. Teachers need to invest a lot of resources and in return they don’t always get the chance to rebuild these resources. Oftentimes the desired appreciation by society for their jobs is missing. Despite a weekly work schedule of up to 51 hours, the teaching profession is generally considered a part-time job. An occasional lack of acceptance by students, parents or colleagues is added to this mix. Another reason for the danger of teacher burnout are increasing social demands which many teachers are not able to handle. What’s more, teachers are affected by constant structural changes. This includes for example changes in the school syllabus by the German Ministry of Education. A successful implementation of these alterations requires a modified behavioral pattern by teachers, since an implementation is not just an individual process, but a shared job of the school. Findings of school development research show that teacher cooperation is essential for a successful implementation process. However, this contradicts the old structures and the assumption of the so-called authority-parity pattern. The term describes the assumption that the teacher alone is in charge of his lessons, which nobody can interfere with, and that all teachers should be treated equally. If a teacher is not able to let go of this notion and to accept changes, he/she is reluctant to cooperate. Not because he/she generally wants to refuse cooperation but because he/she does not know which steps need to be taken to cooperate successfully. So an inner barrier inhibits the person from taking this last step?

Morgenroth: That´s correct. In addition it is extra work that needs to be produced by teachers. The requirements are getting more and more and the guidelines of the Ministry have to be implemented. At the same time, the additional hours that are needed for this work are not being afforded. There are also barely any new teachers being employed who could produce some relief. People in this profession have to deal with this fact and this leads to stress. This is why it is actually an important and right step to cooperate with each other, particularly to implement innovations. You would save time, since you get help from your colleagues. For example, this could be by getting some pointers and help for your own lessons from colleagues by sitting in during their lessons. This can help to absorb your own extra work load, since then every individual person does not have to look for solutions on their own to implement an innovation.

  What consequence does this constant stress have on your health?

Morgenroth: There is evidence of exhaustion. You are tired, yet you can no longer sleep. It leads to a strong dissatisfaction; you withdraw from social activities and can barely concentrate at work. You simply feel unable to cope. Which preventative measures can be taken, if you know for instance that reforms are coming?

Morgenroth: It is important to know that stress should not just be viewed in terms of the individual, but that the environment should also be considered. This resource-theoretical approach1 depicts stress as a change or threat to the supply of resources. A continued loss of energy ultimately leads to burnout. You can picture this as a win/lose spiral, where the teacher for instance loses more and more resources due to the extra work load. But through adaptive coping strategies you can interact to where you once again gain more resources – and thus increase well-being. Active prosocial stress coping strategies serve to reduce stress and can be very different depending on the individual. This may include that you proactively look for support.

One important aspect here is so-called self-efficacy. It describes the awareness of feeling competent to master a situation you took on. Ultimately it also has an effect on the process of whether somebody has the courage to approach somebody else and also to get help. This can only be accomplished however by somebody who feels competent, even if he owns up to a mistake or a weakness. But you need to keep in mind that social support can also have an inhibitive effect on people with self-efficacy, since it possibly undermines their feeling of autonomy. Therefore people with little self-efficacy benefit more from social support – but precisely those people rarely ask for it. Generally one should therefore provide help in such a way to where a feeling of autonomy is being preserved despite the support. People who suffer from burnout are unfortunately only rarely able to admit mistakes and show weaknesses. So how can you help somebody who already suffers from this?

Morgenroth: Basically this depends on the severity of the disease. If you notice as a co-worker or family member that somebody keeps withdrawing more and more and is more often than usual unable to cope, it helps to make the first step and approach the other person. The goal is to help the affected person in their ability to solve problems so that a constructive behavior modification becomes possible. For a sensitive conversation to be a success, so-called active listening where you-messages are being avoided and feelings are being conveyed in the first person perspective to the affected person is recommended. In doing so, the affected person senses the necessary acceptance of himself. If clear signs of burnout can already be detected, you should seek additional expert help. Increasingly in Germany at the moment there is a call for all-day schools which are already well established in other countries like for instance France. Are there studies from other countries from which Germany could learn which stress coping programs are especially suited for teachers?

Morgenroth: The first scientific article on burnout comes from the U.S. The first practical examination on burnout was also published by an American. There definitely is a lively international exchange of concepts regarding stress. Transferring a practical stress coping program to German culture however is not quite so easy. As I have already mentioned, coping with stress is most often also connected to a person´s behavior, which in turn is influenced by the culture of the respective country. Which tip could you give us to better cope with stress?

Morgenroth: You should try to keep your resources well-balanced and to already protect as many resources as possible before the stressful event. This can mean to treat yourself to breaks, to listen inside yourself and see if something has become too much – and consequently also know when to say “no“ and not take on too much.


The interview was conducted by Simone Ernst and translated by Elena O'Meara.


1: according to Stevan Hobfoll and Petra Buchwald


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