SIU Newsletter July 2019

Teachers’ Workload and Resilience

By Dr Carolyn Timms, Psychology Lecturer, College of Healthcare Science, Division of Tropical Health and Medicine, James Cook University

In 2007 we asked 251 full-time teachers about the hours they spent working in a normal school week. All but six of these participants (n = 246) reported they worked much longer than 40 hours per week. While this can be no surprise to teachers themselves, it can be an astonishing revelation to people unfamiliar with the education sector (like new partners and friends) who inevitably reference school hours and lots of holidays. Apart from classroom contact hours, the long working hours can comprise activities that are school based (a variety of extra-curricular activities such as sport, drama and music as well as meetings, parental reporting etc.) and/or home-based (preparation, marking and paperwork). Additional to this heavy physical load is the emotional load inherent in achieving a consistent and sustainable level of ‘even-keeled’ performance in day-to-day interactions with people (children, fellow staff members, parents). Emotional Labour is a recognised source of strain in any profession involving people, and teachers’ experience renders them particularly vulnerable. 

Other professions that involve working long hours, also involve extra remuneration. This is not the case in teaching. A good deal of extra work is honorary and voluntary. Inevitably, outsiders looking in, marvel at the motivation of people spending many unpaid hours at work. Not so apparent to outsiders, but powerfully motivating to teachers, are learning or mastery experiences where people feel they have made a significant contribution to others. Such experience is intrinsically rewarding, and thereby enables personal growth and career satisfaction. However (and this is a big “however”) in our own research we have found that pivotal to teachers’ feeling of satisfaction with their work and career is a sense of psychological safety only provided by a supportive work environment. Erosion of a supportive work environment (by means of politics, micromanagement, or undue pressure) leaves teachers relying on their own personal resources and (no matter how dedicated they are) vulnerable to burnout. According to Ryan and Deci work environments characterized by directives, deadlines, pressure and imposed goals diminish intrinsic motivation. Supportive work environments are characterized by acknowledgement of feelings, choice and opportunities for self-direction. In short, leaders with emotional intelligence are essential to the well-being of teachers in schools. 

Howard and Johnson’s research investigating resilient teachers in disadvantaged schools found that in spite of daily abuse from students (and parents), their participants were thriving. School leadership was trusted, supportive and proactive, enabling teachers’ personal sense of competence and a cohesive school community. Consequently, in spite of a less-than ideal socio-economic environment, students achieved milestones. This is a robust finding within the literature, school leadership sets the tone for resilient schools, teachers who love their jobs, and students who are learning.

Sabine Sonnentag and her colleagues have conducted extensive and meticulous research into how workers can sustain both mental health and high performance at work. They identified psychological detachment as another key driver in worker resilience. It is best described as the ability to ‘switch-off’ from work in non-work time. Switching-off entails a complete change in focus and attention to other pursuits such as hobbies, sports, etc. The benefit of being able to switch-off is that it enables people to “charge their batteries” and recover. When people are not able to switch-off, their non-work time is dominated by ruminating about and discussing work, thereby compromising their mental recovery. Challenges to workers’ ability to switch-off include work having to be taken home, and continued access to individuals from work (via emails and phone communication), about work-related issues. In view of the long hours that teachers work, it is observed that they are particularly vulnerable to work demands on their non-work time, and inability to achieve restorative psychological recovery.

Our current research seeks to explore the experience of new teachers as they adjust to their chosen profession. In view of previous findings that supportive leadership contributes a great deal to teachers’ mental health and resilience, we are especially interested in exploring new teachers’ experiences with school leadership teams and mentoring staff. In addition, we seek to find out more about the impact of workload and issues at work on new teachers’ ability to switch-off, achieve psychological recovery and maintain their enthusiasm for their work.

Howard, S., & Johnson, B. (2004). Resilient teachers: resisting stress and burnout. Social Psychology of Education, 7(1), 399-430.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Sonnentag, S., & Kuhnel, J. (2016). Coming back to work in the morning: Psychological detachment and reattachment as predictors of work engagement. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(4), 379-390. doi:1076-8998/16
Timms, C., & Brough, P. (2013). “I like being a teacher”: Career satisfaction, the work environment and work engagement. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(6), 768-789.
Timms, C., Graham, D., & Cottrell, D. (2007). ‘I just want to teach’: Queensland independent teachers and their workload. Journal of Educational Administration, 45(5), 569-586.

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