A teacher suffering from burnout may be directly linked to stress in their students, a first-of-its-kind study from the University of British Columbia says.

The goal of the study -- published in the journal Social Science & Medicine's second June issue -- was to determine if there was a correlation between teachers' burnout levels and students' physiological stress response. The study authors note that students who suffer from higher levels of stress suffer from more mental health problems, adjustment problems in school and struggle academically.

Educational psychology researchers took saliva samples and tested cortisol levels – a hormone that is released in response to stress – from 406 students in Grades 4 to 7 in 17 classrooms across Metro Vancouver. The teachers completed a questionnaire listing their job satisfaction as well as their emotional feelings toward their job and their students.

In classrooms where teachers reported feeling emotional exhaustion or burnout, students had elevated cortisol levels. Higher cortisol levels are a biological indicator of stress.

"Higher morning cortisol levels in students could be significantly predicted from higher burnout levels in classroom teachers," the study authors concluded.

The researchers say their findings could mean that a teacher's stress may be contagious for the children they teach.

"This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers," said Eva Oberle, the study's lead author and assistant professor at UBC's school of population and public health, in a release.

Inadequate support for teachers – which may impact their ability to properly manage their students – or a poorly managed classrooms can contribute to increasing stress for students.

However, the study notes that the stress could originate from students, who may be more challenging to teach due to behavioural problems and other issues, which can lead to teachers feeling burned out.

"It is unknown what came first: elevated cortisol or teacher burnout. We consider the connection between student and teacher stress a cyclical problem in the classroom," said Oberle.

Both lead researchers say that the study shows there needs to be more support to help prevent teacher burnout and, in turn, help limit students' stress levels.

"If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students," said UBC education professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, the study's co-author.