Last week I presented a seminar to a teachers’ conference on the topic of burnout–which is often just another (more acceptable) name for depression.  I have included here the text of the handout I used.  I also included “Preacher’s Story” available elsewhere on this site.

Teachers Don’t Burn Out (and Other Lies)

Presented at NYACS Fall Conference Oct. 2013

Robert D. Bowker, ValleyHeightsChristianAcademy


“Burnout is not an official term or diagnosis in the field of mental illness….there is no agreement among scientists as to how we should define burnout.”   –Douglas Mental Health University Institute

“Teachers who feel a sense of accomplishment don’t burnout.”  –Maurice Elias

“You have a choice.  Stress leads to burnout; burnout leads to depression.  Next question.”  –quoted by Athlee Bowman

“Teacher burnout is a condition in which teachers remain as paid employees but stop functioning as professionals.”  –Martin Haberman in “An Antidote…”



True or False? 

In other words, do you agree with my conclusions based upon personal experience and research that I like?

_____ 1.  Burnout is a defined physical, emotional and psychological condition.

_____ 2.  Burnout is the greatest threat to teacher success and satisfaction today.

_____ 3.  The factors that may lead to burnout can be prevented or controlled.

_____ 4.  The factors that may lead to teacher burnout are primarily the school administrator’s fault.

_____ 5.  Behavioral and cognitive therapies are reasonable treatments for symptoms of burnout.

_____ 6.  Burnout is another name for depression.

_____ 7.  Time and place help to define both burnout and depression.

_____ 8.  Depression is quicker and easier to treat than burnout.

_____ 9.  .Spiritual Christians will suffer depression, but not for long.

_____ 10.  Depression is the result of sin.


1.  Burnout is a defined physical, emotional and psychological condition.  TRUE–though it is not recognized as a form of medical or mental illness.

Almost unanimously, burnout is said to be characterized by three aspects:

            a.  Physical and emotional fatigue  (with the pains, illnesses, irritability, inability to            concentrate, forgetfulness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, and other factors that can          result from any severe exhaustion)

            b.  Depersonalization  (the withdrawal of the individual from interaction with others)

            c.  Reduced sense of personal accomplishment (loss of joy, satisfaction, motivation, and             hope)

Note that these aspects involve physical, social, and psychological factors.  Also note however, that there is a spiritual aspect as well—necessary for prevention or recovery from burnout or any other situation that may involve symptoms such as these.


2.  Burnout is the greatest threat to teacher success and satisfaction today.  FALSE.

Burnout poses a threat to any teacher who cares about students; but burnout itself is a response to the threat we call stress.


3.  The factors that may lead to burnout can be prevented or controlled.  FALSE. 

By definition, stress results from our inability to prevent or control aspects of our life.

C. Kyriacou in 2001 listed 10 of the main sources of teacher stress:

  • pupils who lack motivation
  • maintaining discipline
  • time pressures and workload
  • coping with change
  • be evaluated by others
  • dealings with colleagues
  • self-esteem and status issues
  • administration and management
  • role conflict and ambiguity
  • poor working conditions


In most cases, the teacher has few resources to prevent or control these issues.  However, the teacher at the outset does have the power to determine how she or he will respond to the stresses.  Palliative techniques focus on reducing the feelings of stress in the individual.


4.  The factors that may lead to teacher burnout are primarily the school administrator’s fault.  TRUE. 

Well, maybe responsibility is a better word than fault.  In an ideal world, the administrator would be the person with the power to change the things that we cannot.


5.  Behavioral and cognitive therapies are reasonable treatments for symptoms of burnout.


While the terms sound worldly and unspiritual, the concepts that they describe are profitable spiritual exercises and steps of obedience and growth.

Whether we call them palliative, behavioral, cognitive, or some other kind of treatment, the fact is that the way we respond to stress under normal conditions is determined by our choices.  Do we think on the things of Philippians 4:8?  Do we focus on the fruit of the Spirit, or are we overcome by the works of the flesh?  Do we rejoice in the Psalms, or do we wallow in the first 11 chapters of Ecclesiastes?  Do we worship, or do we worry?  Have we made moderation and contentment our watchwords?

If (for whatever reason) wrong thought patterns, speech patterns, or behavior patterns have started affecting our lives and ministries, we can apply techniques of prayer, meditation, praise, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, etc.  These therapies will not change our circumstances, but they will change the way we view our circumstances.

Examples of behavioral therapies:

  • change in diet, especially to add vitamin D
  • increased physical activity
  • discussion group/relationship building
  • set and keep a simple schedule and routine
  • become actively involved in a hobby
  • breathing exercises and other stress relief mechanisms
  • seek and maintain regular counseling

Other examples of cognitive therapies:

  • trust God, read His word, pray–even if it is only a few minutes or a few words
  • list negative influences in your life, and deal with them appropriately
  • confess sin and forgive yourself–aloud if necessary
  • acknowledge and permit yourself to experience your disappointments and griefs
  • list encouraging words and practice them on yourself and others
  • memorize and quote or write appropriate Scriptures
  • list 5 goals for the future, and determine what it would take to make them come true
  • accept your illness and call it an illness
  • eliminate terminal words from your vocabulary:  can’t, won’t, always, never, impossible, etc.


It behooves us to pause and look at five stages of burnout, as defined  by Jesse Lyn Hanley, M.D.

Driven—the pre-burnout stage, when tremendous things are accomplished—not motivated by plan or purpose, but by the adrenalin rush triggered by pressure.  While this looks great to the casual observer, the driven individual is becoming dependent upon adrenalin (the “fight or flight” hormone).  Unless interrupted at this point, there is the very real danger of adrenaline addition and adrenal fatigue.  NOTE:  both of these are physical, hormonal imbalances that affect the body and mind.

Draggin’—the physical fatigue from adrenalin overload results in weakened determination and self-control.  Diet and sleep habits begin to be affected. 

Losing It.—Physical and emotional fatigue are having an effect on the social aspects of life.  Anger, hypersensitivity, and complaining are constant companions when you have to be around others.  On the whole, it’s easier to stay away from everyone else.

Hitting the Wall—the body and mind are wearing down, resulting in aches and pains, outbursts of emotion, and forgetfulness.  The teacher who has “hit the wall” knows that she is no longer effective in the classroom, but can’t do anything about it—and frankly, doesn’t want to try.

Burned Out—Serious illnesses and accidents are common.  The teacher at this stage will often self-medicate or will stop taking necessary prescriptions.  The pervasive sense of uselessness, despair, and unworthiness leads to serious consideration of leaving the job, the profession, the family, or worse.


6.  Burnout is another name for depression.  TRUE.

It is my contention (and my experience) that when one reaches stage 5 of burnout as defined above, there is no distinction between it and depression.


7.  Time and place help to define both burnout and depression.  FALSE.


Various “experts” try to use duration or workplace setting to distinguish between these conditions, but their conclusions are contradictory and occasionally nonsensical.

John Rosales tells of a “Survive and Thrive” Mini-Sabbatical Intervention Program for suffering teachers.  The program begins with a retreat and “…After the first year, most [of the burned-out teachers] are back in their classrooms.”  Nicholas Provenzano assigns the most frequent burnouts to the end of the school year, lasting about two months.  Another writer (Douglas) contends if the symptoms are intense and last more than two weeks, then the sufferer has depression, not burnout.  Tim LaHaye describes how his own serious depression lasted only a few days.  He also documents the claim that the tendency toward depression increases over the years, and especially past age 50; Clandfield cites a study indicating that burnout is greater when the teachers are much younger.

As for the matter of location, Elias contends that “…Teacher burnout is most often an organizational problem….”  Leiter and Durup write that “…Burnout is primarily a social construct…” as opposed to the personal nature of depression; and that they illustrate by referring to how sufferers word their complaints:  teachers with burnout might say something to the effect that their job makes them feel sad, while those who are depressed express sadness without reference to the job.  Other writers (e.g. Brennfleck and Brennfleck) apparently believe strongly that burnout is specific to the job–suggesting that a primary solution to burnout is changing workplaces or even careers.  I have not encountered any professionals who have suggested that changing location would in any way help someone who is depressed.


8.  Depression is quicker and easier to treat than burnout.  FALSE.

“If the problem is depression, particularly of the endogenous type, effective relief may be only weeks away through appropriate medication.  Burnout may require many months or even years of adjustment for effective recovery.”  –Hart

My experience is that experts in depression may discount burnout (since, after all, it is not a mental illness) and assign quick and easy solutions for it.  Those who study burnout may, in their rush to differentiate it from depression, may make claims like the one above: depression may require medication, but burnout never does. [This is especially true in religious articles such as Bowman, Wiedis, Amimo, Vess, etc. etc.  I suspect there is an ulterior motive behind this phenomenon.] If, however, both conditions share the clinical cause of a hormonal imbalance, and both require physical, social, and emotional/psychological/spiritual treatment, then I do not see how one is easier to deal with than the other.

9.  Spiritual Christians will suffer depression, but not for long.  FALSE.

This denies the fact that true burnout and clinical depression are physical in cause and nature.  Many people wish to believe the statement, however, because their underlying belief is that

10.  Depression is the result of sin.  TRUE–AND FALSE.

Depression is a result of the sin of Adam, just like any other illness.  An individual’s depression may or may not be the result of sin in the life of the sufferer.

This is just my opinion based upon the appearance of the research, and my own personal experience:  but the feeling seems to be pervasive that though Christians can suffer burnout due to circumstances beyond their control truly spiritual people do not get depressed.  Here’s how Brennfleck and Brennfleck paint the picture:


You can’t get out of bed in the morning, and always feel tired no matter how much sleep you’ve had.  During the day, you feel unmotivated, bored, and perhaps depressed at work.  You feel overwhelmed and like you have lost control over things at work (and at home).  You have lost interest in the things that you used to find exciting.  You find yourself being more irritable or angry.  You are experiencing more physical aches, pains, headaches, stomach problems, or chest pains and find yourself sick more often than before.  When you are at home, you feel anxious, angry, and disconnected from your family members.  If several of these symptoms describe you, you likely are experiencing job burnout.

[Notice–not depression but burnout, though the description is textbook perfect for depression itself.]


Since my own struggles with mental illness began, I have spoken to numerous church groups and pastors’ meetings.  At every one, I have had Christian brothers and sisters confide in me that they too had struggled or were struggling with depression, but that they were afraid to tell anyone because “Spiritual Christians don’t get depressed.”  Every pastor has told me that mental illness is a genuine and serious problem among their members–yet they still hesitate to discuss the topic publicly–presumably because of the long-held prejudice that if believers would just trust and pray, they wouldn’t suffer from depression.  There is an ancient Greek word that expresses my reaction to that ignorant way of thinking:





Works Cited


Amimo, Catherine A.  “Are You Experiencing Teacher Burnout?  A Synthesis of Research Reveals Conventional Prevention and Spiritual Healing.”  Education Research Journal. November 2012. < 2012/Nov/Amimo.pdf>.


 “An Antidote to Teacher Burnout:  Building the Learning Relationship.”  <>.


 “An Apple a Day:  Avoiding Teacher Burnout.” <  Christian-Inspiration/2003/09/An-Apple-A-Day-Avoiding-Teacher-Burnout.aspx#>.


Bowman, Athlee.  “How to Manage Stress—Advice for Christian Women on

Managing Stress and Beating Burnout.”  Just Between Us. <http://justbetweenus. org/ pages/ page.asp?page_id=124173>.


Brennfleck, Kevin, and Brennfleck, Kay Marie.  “Are You Burned Out on Your Job?”  <>.


Clandfield, Lindsay.  “Debate:  Are You Suffering from Burnout?”  OneStopEnglish.  2013.  <>


“Depression or Burn-out?” Mental Health A-Z.  <>


Elias, Maurice.  “Teacher Burnout:  What Are the Warning Signs?”  Edutopia.  May 12, 2012. <>


Hanley, Jesse Lynn, M.D.  cited in “Five Ways to Bring Yourself Back from Burnout.”  November 2011.  < -Stress>


Hart, Archibald D.  “Depressed, Stressed and Burned out:  What’s Going on in My Life?”

Enrichment Journal.  2013.  ,<http://enrichmentjournal. 200603/ 200603_020_burnout.cfm>..


Kyriacou, C.  cited in “Coping with Teacher Burnout.”  Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in Schools.  <



LaHaye, Tim.  How to Win Over Depression.  Revised Edition.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1996.


Leiter, Michael P., and Durup, Josette.  “The Discriminant Validity of Burnout and Depression:  A Confirmatory Factor Analytic Study.”  Anxiety, Stress and Coping.  1994.


Mesar, Tania.  “Teacher Burn Out—3 Crucial Strategies to Get Beyond It.”  <>.


Provenzano, Nicholas.  “Teacher Burnout:  Four Warning Signs.”  Teacher Leadership.  May 22, 2013.  <>


Rosales, John.  “Surviving Teacher Burnout.”  NEA Today.  June 7, 2011.  <>


Vess, Daniel R.  “Are You Suffering from Spiritual Burnout?”<http://www.forumterrace.



Wiedis, Dave.  “Ten Rules to Avoid Ministry Burnout.” <>