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Burnout among Teachers in Higher Education: An Empirical Study of Higher Education Institutions in Portugal

Empirical study

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International Journal of Management Science and Business Administration
Volume 6, Issue 5, July 2020, Pages 7-15

Burnout among Teachers in Higher Education: An Empirical Study of Higher Education Institutions in Portugal

DOI: 10.18775/ijmsba.1849-5664-5419.2014.65.1001
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.18775/ijmsba.1849-5664-5419.2014.65.1001

1Renata Teles, 2António Valle, 3Susana Rodriguez

1IMULP, Instituto de Mediação de Conflitos Universidade Lusófona do Porto, Universidade Lusófona do Porto, Portugal
2 3 Universidade da Coruña, Spain

Abstract: Burnout is considered by the World Health Organization an extreme response to cumulative and prolonged occupational stress, with teachers being among the professionals most affected by it. This disease influences physical and psychological well-being, negatively affecting the relationship between teachers and students. It also compromises the quality of teaching, thus inducing absenteeism and increasing professional abandonment. Our study examines the degree of incidence of Burnout affecting Professors from the Portuguese Higher Education Institutions. The first study was carried out on a sample of 520 teachers. A proportion of 41 (7.9%) Higher Education Teachers scored high on Burnout. A second phase of the study was conducted to gather data on socio-demographic and socio-professional characteristics of teachers affected by Burnout. The MBI (Maslach Burnout Inventory) and another questionnaire was built for this purpose and were used to collect the study data. The results indicate the majority of teachers affected by Burnout were female (63.4%). Most of them are between 40 and 59 years old (75.6%) and married (68.3%). Overall, 41.5% had 10 to 19 years of service and 39.0% between 20 and 29 years of service. The teachers with an undetermined contract (48.8%) and temporary contract (36.6%) displayed higher levels of Burnout, but the self-employment worker (4.9%) appears in a residual amount. Teachers most affected by Burnout are from Public Polytechnic Institutes (48.8%), followed by Public University teachers (41.5%). Teacher’s Burnout is a serious problem and should be considered by the Higher Education Institutions regarding the development of good teaching practice.

Keywords: Burnout, Higher Education Teachers, Universities and Higher Polytechnic Institutes

Burnout among Teachers in Higher Education: An Empirical Study of Higher Education Institutions in Portugal

1. Introduction

Human beings can be vulnerable to stress depending on his perception for the factors that surrounds them, as well as the phase of life that they experience .

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (World Health Organization, 1994), 25% of employees consider work as one of the stressors in their life and 75% think their employment is more stressful compared to the previous decade. The institute recommends that emphasis should be placed on the study of improving the quality of  life on professionals , promoting safety, protecting workers and promoting their general well-being (World Health Organization, 1994). The WHO (World Health Organization, 1994) considers Burnout Syndrome to be a form of occupational stress, which arises as a result of elevated and chronic stress levels. From the new classification of ICD11 (International Classification of Diseases, version 11, in (World Health Organization, 1994)) this syndrome will be classified as a disease.

Different theories were conceptualized to explain Burnout.  Maslach and Jackson (1981), Gil Monte (2002), Edelwisch and Brodsky (1980, in Carlotto, 2002) and is an extremely investigated phenomenon. The model chosen this study is the Maslach’s model (Maslach & Jackson, 1981) since it is one of the most notable in the scientific world. Maslach’s model is used to diagnose Burnout in workers with chronic work stress when manifestations of specific signs and symptoms appear they explain a specific physical and mental condition. This particularly relates feelings of lack of energy or exhaustion, emotional detachment, negativism, and cynicism about the  job position. A decrease in professional efficiency accompanied by feelings of low personal fulfilment is also a characteristic. These symptoms are integrated into three defining dimensions of Burnout: Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization and low levels of Personal Achievement.

2. Literature Review

Souza e cols (2017) remarked that universities provide work environments where the pressure on teachers to intensify their work, specifically with regards to academic productivity. There are studies where the precarious work of university professors is still evident, considering the increase in precarious contracts and the instability associated with temporary work (Reis Souza et al., 2017).

Marques Pinto, Lima, and Lopes da Silva (2005) observed high levels of Burnout in 6.3% of teachers. In this study, 30% of teachers were still at risk of developing the syndrome. These values were point as common to other European studies. Some manifestations of Burnout Syndrome in teachers induces mental health problems that can vary depending on their individual and/or work characteristics (Marenco-Escuderos, & Ávila-Toscano 2016).

The result of a study conducted on Portuguese teachers from all educational levels, except higher education, showed that 76.4% of the respondents presented signs of emotional exhaustion, of which 11.6% were considered alarming, and 15.6% critical. About 7.6% had critical Depersonalization and 42.5% low Personal Achievement values (FENPROF, 2018). Women seem to be more predisposed to Burnout (Bedoya, Vega, Severiche & Meza, 2017). Muñoz, Campaña and Campaña’s (2018) study conducted on a sample of university teachers in Colombia, concluded that female higher education teachers are more likely to feel emotionally worn out and experience less capacity for self-engagement. Their study also posits women are more vulnerable to stress than men, with a 5.3 times higher risk of Burnout compared to men (Muñoz, Campaña & Campaña, 2018).

Age has been a common aspect of Burnout studies. Younger teachers seem to be the most vulnerable to stress. However, older teachers are the ones who show higher levels of Burnout (Carlotto, 2012). With career progression and ageing itself, there is an increased feeling of deterioration. The higher working and social demand set on teachers’ role seem to be associated with the experience of Burnout (Silva & Carlotto, 2003).

Teachers with a longer tenure are more prone to Burnout (Guedes & Gaspar, 2016). In a Portuguese study (FENPROF, 2018), the levels of emotional exhaustion were found to be directly associated with length of service. Conversely, Bedoya and cols (Bedoya, Vega, Severiche & Meza, 2017) found that the most experienced teachers had a better adaptation to work, possibly due to the learning of didactic strategies that lead to less exhaustion in this population. According to Mancebo (2007), with time a temporary employment in higher education will grow. Precarious contractual nature and working environment causes teachers to seek other sources of income to meet their needs for support, personal and family. Marenco-Escuderos and Ávila-Toscano (22) examining a sample of professors with a fixed-term contract or undetermined duration of a fixed-term contract, found that teachers having fixed-term contract show higher levels of Burnout. This was justified based on a lack of professional stability and experiencing greater professional exhaustion.

Married teachers were found to have lower levels of professional exhaustion compared to single, divorced or widowed. Thus, social support is theorized to be a crucial variable in this syndrome (Carlotto, 2002). In a study with Portuguese teachers, Carlotto (Carlotto, 2002), observed that single teachers have significantly higher levels of Depersonalization  compared to married ones. In several studies, married teachers were found to posses lower levels of Burnout (Carlotto, 2002; Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Maslach & Jackson, 1985). A stable affective relationship seems to be a protective factor when individuals are faced with situations stimulating Burnout. Teachers who are parents experience more work overload and feel they’ve accomplished more than their obligations. They display lower degree of Personal Achievement as well as disinterest in work (Carlotto, 2002). Having children was considered a risk factor for Burnout Syndrome in some studies (Muñoz, Campaña & Campaña, 2018 ). However, this idea is opposed by Merino-Plaza and cols. (2018) who consider that family involvement stimulates a better ability to deal with emotional conflicts and problems. Few studies examining the impact of geographic characteristics on Burnout observed that residents in a more developed socioeconomic countries show higher levels of stress proneness compared to teachers working in less economically developed countries (Moriana Elvira & Herruzo Cabrera, 2004; Garcia Arroyo, 2017). In the national study by IPSSO (Mota Cardoso, Araújo, Ramos, Gonçalves & Ramos, 2002), there were no differences between geographic areas.

With regards to public and private schools, although present in both institutions, the level of Emotional Exhaustion appears to be higher in public institutions (Barreto, Formiga, Minervino & Nascimento, 2013). A study involving three Portuguese universities and a polytechnic institute found that the existence of physical fatigue and Emotional Exhaustion was correlated with Burnout, but the same was not confirmed for cognitive fatigue (Ferreira, 2016). With regards to scientific areas, social sciences university professors displayed lower values of Emotional Exhaustion (Bedoya, Vega, Severiche & Meza, 2017).

3. Methodology

Quantitative research is characterized by numerical analysis. Numerical values are attributed to selected variables, implying the research data collection and analysis relies on instruments with the common characteristic of being reduced to a number representing the abstract entity (Ribeiro, 2007). The translation of abstract constructs into theories or results forms an important element of the whole investigation. This allows the projections on the represented population. Research constructs are used to test research hypotheses and they enable the formation of indexes for comparing data.

The present study aimed to:

1. Measure the degree of incidence of a Severe Burnout in a group of higher education teachers.

2. Describe a group of Teachers with Severe Burnout, encompassing socio-demographic and socio-professional characteristics.

3.1 Participants

The sample was chosen based on the exhaustive compilation of all HEIs in Portugal and their teachers. After administering, 524 questionnaires were received, four were eliminated as they were incorrect or incomplete. The final sample consisted of 520 respondents. According to the sample calculation for this study, 320 respondents are necessary to obtain significant results, considering a sampling error of 5% with a 95% confidence level. The required amount of participants was acquired.

The survey and the scale were emailed to teachers, asking them to complete the questionnaire after a guarantee of confidentiality in the treatment of the respective results was provided. The Google Forms digital questionnaire platform was used, ensuring that data were confidential and that only quantitative and statistical data would be used in investigations.

Of the 520 respondents, 339 (65.2%) are female and 181 (34.8%) male. A total of 41 teachers (7.9%) show signs and symptoms of Severe Burnout. Regarding age, 104 (20%) participants are under 40 years old, 197 (37.9%) between 40 and 49 years old, 182 (35.0%) between 50 and 59 years old and 37 (7.1%) over 60 years. Most participants are married (63.7%), 22.3% are single, 13.5% are divorced and 0.6% are widowed. With regards to the parental status, 148 (28.5%) of the teachers do not have children, 132 (25.4%) have one child, 181 (34.8%) two children and 59 (11.3%) have more than two children. As for the distribution by the Country’s Zone, 41.5% of the teachers teach in the North, 30.6% in the Central Zone and 27.9% in the South of Portugal.

3.2 Instruments

In the initial phase of the study, three instruments were applied; namely, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI, Maslach & Jackson, 1981) the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS, Cohen, Kamarck & Mermelstein, 1983) and the socio-demographic questionnaire. The questionnaire was prepared by authors and consists of questions concerning measurements related to age, gender, teaching profession tenure (“less than 10 years”, “10 to 19 years”, “20 to 29 years”, and “30 or more years”) and scientific areas the person teaches (“Social Sciences”, “Health Sciences”, “Technological Sciences”, “Arts and Humanities” and “Others”).

The MBI and PSS used are versions translated and adapted by the Institute for the Prevention of Stress and Occupational Health (IPSSO, Mota Cardoso, Araújo, Ramos, Gonçalves & Ramos, 2002). Before the application of the aforementioned instruments, authorization was obtained. In the initial phase of the study, three tools were used: the MBI (Maslach & Jackson, 1981) the PSS (Cohen, Kamarck & Mermelstein, 1983), and a socio-demographic questionnaire, which was prepared by the authors. The questionnaire consists of questions concerning age, gender, the teaching tenure (“less than 10 years”, “10 to 19 years”, “20 to 29 years”, and “30 or more years”) and scientific areas the person teaches (“Social Sciences”, “Health Sciences”, “Technological Sciences”, “Arts and Humanities” and “Others”).

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) encompasses three dimensions relating to the socio-psychological characteristics of the “Burnout Syndrome”, namely: emotional exhaustion (EE – 9 items), personal accomplishment (PA – 8 items) and Depersonalization (DP – 5 items). Answers should be given on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from  0 “never” to 1 “a few times a year or less”, 2 “once a month or less”, 3 “a few times a month”, 4 “once a week”, 5 “a few times a week” and 6 “every day” (Cronbach’s Alpha for Emotional Exhaustion α = 0.92, for Personal Accomplishment α = 0.81, indicators of internal consistency and for Depersonalization α = 0.71, which indicates an internal consistency). The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) version that was used was the version translated and adapted by Mota-Cardoso, Araújo, Ramos, Gonçalves, and Ramos. Answers were obtain using a Likert scale, ranging from 0 to 4 points, corresponding to 0 “never”, 1 “rarely”, 2 “sometimes”, 3 “very often” and 4 “many times.

In the second phase of the study, only the MBI and the socio-demographic questionnaire were considered to identify the group of Burnout Teachers in terms of socio-demographic and socio-professional characteristics.

3.3 Data Analysis

To analyze the data, high values of Emotional Exhaustion (Score> 32; P> 66), Depersonalization  (Score> 6; P> 66), and low Personal Achievement (Score <35; P <33) (Rodríguez-Flores & Sánchez-Trujillo, 2018; Maslach & Jackson, 1985) were considered. Severe Burnout was diagnosed when participants simultaneously obtained these scores in the three dimensions. After the identification of teachers with Severe Burnout levels, descriptive analysis was carried out to identify the profile characteristics of a group of teachers affected by Burnout, considering the socio-demographic and socio-professional variables. The association between the Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization, Personal Achievement and Perceived Stress dimensions and the demographic and socio-professional characteristics of teachers with high levels of Burnout was assessed with Pearson’s correlation.

4. Results and Discussion

4.1 Teachers Affected by Burnout

Considering the definition of Severe Burnout, we found that 41 higher education teachers (7.9%) had indicators of this level of Burnout Table 1.

Table 1: Teachers participating

Without Burnout47992.1
Severe Burnout417.9


Table 2 presents the matrix of correlations between the dimensions of Burnout; namely, the Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization and Personal Achievement.

Emotional exhaustion has statistically significant correlations with Depersonalization and Perceived Stress, as well as a negative and significant association with personal achievement. Depersonalization is correlated with perceived stress and inversely associated with personal achievement. In turn, personal achievement has a negative correlation with perceived stress.

Table 2: Pearson’s correlation of the three dimensions of Burnout, Depersonalization  Emotional Exhaustion and Personal Achievement, with Perceived Stress

Emotional ExhaustionDepersonalizationPersonal AchievementPerceived Stress
Emotional Exhaustion
Personal Achievement-.237*-.376*
Perceived Stress.696*.417*-.362*

* p < 0.01

4.1 Teachers with Severe Burnout and Social Demographic Variables

Most of the respondents are female (63.4%). With regards to age, 19.5% are under 40 years old, 39.0% between 40 and 49 years old, 36.6% between 50 and 59 years old, and 4.9% over 60 years old.

With regards to the marital status, 22.0% of the participants are single, 68.3% are married or living with someone, 7.3% are divorced or separated, and 2.4% are widowed. A total of 10 teachers (24.4%) have no children, 36.6% have one child, 36.6% with two children (2.4%) more than two children.

Table 3: Teachers in Severe Burnout and Socio-demographic Variables

Severe Burnout – Socio-demographic Variables
Less 40 years819.5
40 – 49 years1639.0
50 – 59 years1536.6
Over 60 years24.9
Marital Statusn%
Number Childrenn%
3 or more12.4
Geographic Distributionn%

Regarding geographic distribution 29.3% of teachers with severe Burnout who teach in the North of Portugal 31.7% in Central Portugal and finally 39.0% in the South of Portugal.

4.2 Burnout and Social Professional Variables

Considering the socio-professional variables (cf. Table 3) of a group of teachers with Severe Burnout, there are 6 (14.6%) teachers with less than 10 years of tenure, 17 (41.5%) between 10 years and 19 years of service, 16 (39.0%) between 20 and 29 years of service and 2 (4.9%) teachers have more than 30 years of service.

Regarding the institution where the Teachers affected by Burnout teach, 17 (41.5%) and 20 (48.8%) of the Public Polytechnic appear in Public Universities, in Private Universities 2 (4.9%), the same values appear in Private Polytechnic 2 (4.9 %). Examining the contractual relationship with the institution where they work, 48.8% have undetermined duration contracts, 36.6% with temporary contract contracts, 4.9% are Self-employed worker and 9.8% with another contractual modality.

Taking into account the teaching area, 16 teachers (39.0%) are from the Social Sciences, 8 (19.5%) are from the Health Sciences, 10 (24.4%) are from the Technological Sciences, 6 (14.6%) teach in Arts and Humanities, and 1 (2.4%) teach in other areas not specified.

Table 4: Description of Teachers with Severe Burnout and Socio-professional Variables

Severe Burnout– Variables Socio-professional
Years of Servicen%
less ten years614.6
10-19 years1741.5
20-29 years1639.0
30 more years24.9
Work institutionn%
Public University1741.5
Public Polytechnic Institutes2048.8
Private University24.9
Private Polytechnic Institutes24.9
Contract Typen%
Undetermined duration2048.8
Temporary contract1536.6
Self-employed worker24.9
Training Areasn%
Social Sciences1639.0
Health Sciences819.5
Technological Sciences1024.4
Arts and Humanities614.6


In this study, we found that 7.9% of higher education teachers have severe levels of Burnout, corroborating previous study results (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). Other results are consistent with the existing literature in the domain. We found that this population consists mainly of women (Bedoya, Vega, Severiche & Meza, 2017) and middle-aged teachers (Carlotto, 2012; Silva & Carlotto, 2003).

In this study, married teachers are overrepresented in the group of teachers with severe levels of Burnout, contradicting different studies stating that married people have lower levels of Burnout (Marenco-Escuderos & Ávila-Toscano, 2016; Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Maslach & Jackson, 1985; Carlotto, 2002). As previously indicated, having one or two children is a risk factor for Burnout, and this indication is in line with Muñoz, Campaña and Campaña (2018 ). We also found higher levels of Burnout in teachers teaching in the south, contrary to the notion that developed areas are more prone to Burnout (Moriana Elvira & Herruzo Cabrera, 2004; Garcia Arroyo, 2017). Teachers developing their career (between 10 and 29 years old) will be more affected, with more emphasis on those between 20 and 29 years old, not having been found in the IPSSO study (Mota Cardoso, Araújo, Ramos, Gonçalves & Ramos, 2002). Professors teaching social sciences and technological sciences also stand out as most affected by Burnout.

A noteworthy result refers to the fact that a large portion of the teachers affected by severe Burnout have established an employment relationship. Although we did not find studies on these variables, we found that self-employed people appear in a residual percentage with Burnout. These results contradict Mancebo’s (2007) argument that professional instability causes more professional exhaustion. In the present study, it appears that those who have a stable job are the ones with that symptom.

Teachers who teach at Public HEIs are more predisposed to Burnout than their colleagues at Private HEIs, being higher in teachers at Public Polytechnic HEIs followed by University Public HEIs. On the other hand, teachers having an undetermined duration of a fixed-term agreement or a temporary contract are also the most affected, as are the ones teaching “social sciences”.

The results of this study indicate risk factors for teachers with a propensity to Burnout as follows. Burnout prone teachers are likely female, married, with one or two children, aged between 40 and 59 years old, or working in the south of the country. Regarding the socio-professional factors, many cases with Burnout are evident among teachers developing their career, having 10 and 29 years of service, working in Public HEIs, working under the fixed-term contract and the temporary contract, teaching the social and technological sciences.

5. Conclusion

University teachers are responsible for instilling a set of knowledge, wisdom and “know-how” and instructing those who intend to follow a particular profession and exercise it with responsibility, ethics and competence. Taking into account the 21st-century demands relating to teachers’ roles and the constant need for improvement and innovation, teaching is one of the professions most associated with high levels of stress (Mota Cardoso, Araújo, Ramos, Gonçalves, & Ramos, 2002). The requirements related to this profession place teacher under risk of Burnout and stress.

The limitations of the study should be considered. The dependent variables relating to Burnout examined through online questionnaires left no place for doubts that may have arisen during the application. Another limitation is the fact that it is a cross-sectional investigation that does not consider previous and subsequent factors, thus neglecting doubts about possible factors that may influence the data. Making different measurements in different academic moments in the current year would allow checking the variations at different times.

Future investigations should attempt to understand why teachers in the middle of their career feel more pressured and more exhausted, what reasons correlate marriage to Burnout. Prospect studies should also explore the phenomenon of self-employed workers: if they have more economic instability and no permanent contract, why they have less Burnout? Other variables that may influence those experiences should also be taken into account, as well as distinguish the variables under study considering different levels of low, moderate and severe Burnout in each level, aiming to identify the risk and protector factors in the Burnout of this professional group. In summary, the teaching profession classified as risk-prone to developing signs and symptoms of occupational stress is confirmed. The significant contribution of this study is providing new insights that help to build a deeper understanding of Burnout in the context of Portuguese HEIs

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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