Causes of workplace stress

The Leading Causes of Workplace Stress For Teachers and School Staff Across Australia

Asking your staff about their workplace stressors is the fastest way to uncover the most effective strategies and initiatives to address and prevent teacher burnout at your school.

The problem is, many of our well-intentioned efforts are often wasted as they don’t ACTUALLY address the leading stressors for our staff.⁠ This might explain why our staff are still frustrated and exhausted, even though we plan more morning teas, encourage access to the EAP and promote teacher self care.⁠

Through my work with schools, I’ve been collecting data regarding the top reported causes of stress across multiple Australian schools, and what I’m seeing is unsurprising but I must say… these areas continue to be unaddressed in favour of other introduced wellbeing initiatives.⁠

So what exactly is leading to the rise in teacher stress and burnout rates, and what can we do about it? 

This article will explore:

  • Teacher stress and burnout
  • Identifying workplace stressors
  • Organisationional versus operational stressors
  • The leading causes of workplace stress, according to my findings

Teacher Stress and Burnout

While a highly rewarding profession, teaching is undoubtedly stressful and demanding. Teacher stress is higher than prior to the pandemic.  Studies show that around 75% of teachers are reporting that they suffer from stress, with around 20% of these cases being severe or extremely severe. (NEiTA Foundation Survey, 2021). In fact, those working within the teaching profession are reportedly more stressed than the average Australian. Alarmingly, in Australia, almost 4 in 5 school staff may experience a mental illness in their lives.  Currently, 1 in 5 teachers are experiencing depression, and 50% of teachers suffer from anxiety (Mental Health First Aid Australia, 2021).

The questions I often ponder are, how much of this is attributed to chronic and unmanaged stress? What would happen if we got better at our prevention and intervention efforts? Can we adapt the way we lead our school to lessen the burden on our staff?

The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened the stress of teachers as they adapted in record time to home learning and ever-changing directives over the last 2+ years. Since the dawn of the pandemic, teaching staff are being met with more demands than ever before as schools attempt to make up for lost time.  This is all made more challenging by the rising rates of burnout among staff, absenteeism, and staff shortages which are causing an uneven distribution of workload among teachers and school staff.  With staff barely able to get through the expectations placed upon then, many are struggling to feel supported, stay optimistic, and feel engaged with their careers. 

It is apparent that schools and staff are struggling to manage the demands of the profession, and this requires urgent attention. According to the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, stress arises when there is a perceived discrepancy between the demands placed on an individual and their resources (e.g., time, ability) to successfully meet these demands (Sapolsky, 2004). Consistent exposure to occupational stress can lead to decreased job satisfaction, mental health problems and may result in burnout and decisions to leave the profession (Brackett et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2015). 

Interestingly the World Health Organisation recently changed its definition of burnout to “A syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

So, if unmanaged workplace stress leads to teacher burnout, then what are we doing to both prevent and address the causes of stress in the workplace in our school in the first place?

Identifying workplace stressors

If we’re not prepared to take an objective look at the state of our schools and our leadership approach, it can be extremely difficult to uncover the underlying stressors and challenges staff face each day. 

In my experience, many leaders are making the mistake of assuming they know the stressors of their staff, basing these assumptions on their own opinions and observations and/or few facts or evidence. Furthermore, what stressors are known can seem unsurmountable; therefore, they get swept under a rug (at times in favour of more operational or instructional goals), all with the hope that it won’t all implode.  

What’s missing from many school leader and staff relationships is the trust and respect to speak outwardly and frankly about the issues within the system and/or school so everyone can come together to form solutions.  It doesn’t help when some leaders are reluctant to keep an open mind toward what staff have to say or when staff have no other way of venting their grievances than through gossip. But that is what happens when we take a “them versus us” approach.  That’s why it’s important to work jointly with staff when trying to find effective solutions to workplace stressors. 

Unmanaged teacher stress and increasing burnout rates are leading to a worldwide loss of teachers. According to findings by Goddard and Goddard (2006), there is a strong association between intention to leave the profession and teacher burnout, and subsequently, high rates of attrition by early career teachers across numerous countries worldwide. The pandemic is only amplifying these statistics.  As such, it makes sense to work to understand how and why teacher stress arises in our schools and to make informed decisions about prevention and intervention approaches aimed at reducing and responding to stress. While it is most certainly true that staff wellbeing challenges are dictated by more than how we lead each school, there are definitely steps we can take to take matters into our own hands and make changes to our “way of doing” in individual schools.

Asking staff about factors that can indicate and lead to burnout helps to bring more awareness to the acute needs of staff within a school setting and can guide future decision-making or actions.

Organisational Vs Operational Workplace Stressors

Workplace stressors can be both organisational and operational.

Organisational stressors

  • Role clarity:  Staff don’t understand their role, reporting relationships, and key duties and aren’t informed of any changes, including new responsibilities.
  • Job control: Staff haven’t been provided with opportunities to participate in decisions that affect them.
  • Resources and skill development: Staff haven’t been provided with the appropriate resources and training required to competently do their job and manage its associated demands.
  • Individual factors: Staff might be struggling with the often-conflicting demands of work and home life.
  • Respect, trust and equity: Staff are struggling with workplace behaviour that may adversely affect employee mental health and wellbeing.
  • Leadership and management capability: Leaders and managers may not be apt at people management and may lack the confidence to identify and address risk factors.

Operational factors

  • Dealing with the school community: Staff are challenged by threatening or inappropriate student or community member behaviour.
  • Occupational violence: Staff are experiencing threats to their physical or emotional safety from staff, students or community members.
  • Long working hours or excessive workload: Workload is excessive, undefined, and poorly managed or overseen. 

The Leading Causes of Workplace Stress

The best way to begin identifying workplace stressors at your school is through an Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey and school scanning approach. Combining my experience in educational leadership and wellbeing coaching, I formulated a survey that asks pinpointed questions to help leaders gain a solid understanding of what their staff are struggling with the most. Divided into 4 sections, this survey asks questions regarding staff wellbeing, burnout risk, school culture, stressors, and leadership approaches to wellbeing.  Through my work with schools, I’ve been collecting data regarding the top reported causes of stress across multiple Australian schools, and what I’m seeing is unsurprising. 

Workload and administrative tasks, managing difficult students, staff shortages and a lack of planning time are the top contributors of staff stress. 

Causes of workplace stress

Workload and administrative tasks

With workload becoming an ever-increasing problem and challenge in education, schools may benefit from re-assessing the internal workload expectations of their staff through times of high stress, as staff recover from the past 2 years, experience low staff numbers, and contend with interruptions to their teaching programs. From my work with schools, teachers express their frustrations around the amount of emails they receive, the communication outside of working hours, last minute requests to complete tasks, seemingly unrelated professional learning, un-necessary data collection – just to name a few. In addition to this, many staff struggle on an individual level – not only with how much work they have to complete, but they may also lack the skills and capabilities to work productively and manage their time efficiently.

Finally, perceptions of workload are also generally higher when student behaviour is challenging and when staff feel burnt out. Where workload can not be realistically reduced or eliminated, more training on ways to work productively and manage time could be a viable option to support staff. 

Managing difficult students 

Managing difficult students is an ongoing challenge for many teaching and support staff, and the impacts the pandemic has had on student behaviour and relationships can’t be ignored. Another theme emerging in the data is that a large number of staff are identifying that managing difficult students is a leading contributor to their stress. Teachers and staff may benefit from professional development or targeted coaching/mentoring focused on upskilling them in classroom and student management, social/emotional learning, and trauma-informed practice.

Additionally, more streamlined and systemised response protocols could be an area of focus to effectively support staff with their feelings of self-efficacy surrounding student management in a time of heightened worry and anxiety in schools.  This starts with clear vision and processes from the leadership team and clearly communicated expectations and processes actioned across the school. For some schools, this may require a narrow school strategic focus on student management above any additional focuses on instructional goals.

Staff shortages

In the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of teachers leave the profession in favour of a less stressful and demanding career leading to staff shortages across schools worldwide. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and we’ve seen a rise in staff absenteeism due to illness, stress and isolation orders. This has meant that staff and teachers left standing are expected to take on additional workloads so the school can stay afloat. And while maybe this method of filling in has somewhat worked in the past, the situation is too dire now to expect everything to keep running smoothly. 

Consider evaluating all individual workloads (as aforementioned) and redistributing or eliminating non-essential tasks to ensure as much fair distribution as possible. The workload expectations simply can not remain the same when there are not enough staff on the ground. At the same time, prioritise filling roles that will have the most impact on alleviating some of the workloads. 

Lack of planning time

A teacher’s main focus will always be their classroom and delivering the curriculum to their students. However, when there’s an increase in external and workplace stressors and added complexities brought on by the pandemic, teachers and staff are challenged to give priority to other, more “urgent” tasks and expectations, taking precedence over their core need to plan and organise their lessons. Many teachers express their frustrations regarding time spent with administrative meetings and broad and non-specific professional learning, which ultimately detract from their planning time. They feel the pressure to plan and deliver engaging and innovative lessons, yet are never afforded the time to actually plan them. Schools should make every effort to ensure that teachers are able to prioritise planning time as it falls under a core responsibility of their profession. 

What do you think would be the leading causes of workplace stress in your school?

The first step is getting to the bottom of this question because once you do, you can finally put a targeted plan in place and take needle-moving actions that will bring your staff together working towards a shared vision for whole school wellbeing.  If you don’t know what the leading causes of stress are, you’ll keep spinning your wheels and wasting time employing strategies and initiatives that don’t actually get to the root of the problem. 

With our Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey, you can finally gain a full insight into your school’s culture and challenges. The results will allow you to make better-informed decisions about staff wellbeing initiatives moving forward and create a school culture where morale and engagement are high, staff relationships thrive, and students are given the best chance at academic success. 

Addressing these common workplace stressors 

Staff wellbeing is a joint responsibility where both the leaders and staff work towards an improvement in school culture together. The health and wellbeing of a workplace can be enhanced by minimising the impact of risk factors and maximising the impact of protective factors for workplace stress. It is the role of school leaders to find targeted and tailored ways to improve work design while considering the range of factors affecting the mental health and wellbeing of staff in their decision-making and communication. Additionally, our staff play a key role in the improvement of the school’s culture through their roles, responsibilities, openness, respectful feedback, and communication. 

Stay tuned for next week’s article, where we will dive into staff’s top-rated helpful initiatives for improving wellbeing and school culture. 

School Partnership Programs

Surveying your staff is just one of the first steps in my 6-step approach to improved staff wellbeing and school culture. Our School Partnership Program supports and empowers school leaders and their staff to build and embed a tailored ‘Staff Wellbeing Action Plan’. This plan provides schools with the exact steps and tools to transform their school environment into one that nurtures a positive and thriving school culture.

If you’re ready to build a winning action plan that addresses staff stress and burnout and successfully boosts morale, engagement, and staff retention rates, then be sure to get on the waitlist for our next program opening. You’ll be the first to know when doors open!

From the blog

Browse my blog for the latest tips on optimising your health, wellness, lifestyle and everything in between!
19 minute read

Why Wellbeing? The Ripple Effects of Staff Wellbeing on Students, Culture and School Outcomes

If student academic success and school-wide performance are on a school leader’s agenda, then prioritising staff wellbeing should be a forethought, not an afterthought.  There…

10 minute read

Defining Personal and Workplace Wellbeing to Understand The Impact on Staff 

Defining and measuring staff wellbeing is a complex task for schools. Our personal interpretation of wellbeing hinges on our unique perspectives, what we value most,…

9 minute read

The Most Essential Personal Attributes of an Effective Leader

In order to be effective in the current climate, school leaders must embody a mix of cognitive, psychological, and social skills. Personal attributes such as…

14 minute read

10 Steps to Take This Term To Improve Staff Wellbeing at Your School

On the back of the past few years impacted by the pandemic, interruptions to student learning, a national shortage of teachers and unmanageable workloads, staff…