Causes of workplace stress

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

Alongside identifying how staff are faring regarding their health and wellbeing, 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 that many of our well-intentioned efforts are often wasted as they don’t ACTUALLY address the leading risks and 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 partnering with schools across Australia, I’ve had the opportunity to collect data regarding the top reported causes of stress, and what I’m seeing is unsurprising. However, one trend I’ve noticed is that many of these stressors remain unaddressed in favour of other wellbeing initiatives that feel ‘easier’ to tackle – which is nice in theory. Still, they aren’t getting to the heart of the issue.

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:

  • The current state of teacher stress and burnout
  • How to identify workplace stressors
  • Organisationional versus operational stressors
  • The leading causes of teacher and school staff stress, according to my findings

Teacher Stress and Burnout

While a highly rewarding profession, teaching is undoubtedly stressful and demanding. Recent data from the Black Dog Institute reveals that: 

  • 52% of teachers experience extremely severe symptoms of depression
  • 46% experience anxiety symptoms
  • 60% are chronically stressed
  • And as many as 70% report having unmanageable workloads

It’s no wonder that almost half (46.8%) of Australian teachers are considering leaving the profession.

Australian schools are facing unsustainable pressures. We see and feel it, especially with our ever-growing staff shortage challenges. Amongst a pressure cooker of wellbeing burdens such as increasing workload, excessive compliance requirements and growing student needs, staff stress and dissatisfaction are on the rise.

This is all made more challenging by the increasing 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 meet the expectations placed upon them, many are struggling to feel supported, stay optimistic, and feel engaged with their careers. 

It is apparent that some schools and staff are not able to manage the demands of the profession, and this requires urgent attention. Work related stress arises when there is a perceived discrepancy between the demands placed on an individual and their resources (e.g., time, ability) to meet these demands successfully (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.” Labeling it as an “occupational phenomenon.” 

While it is true that staff may benefit from developing their resilience and coping strategies, this definition also highlights how unmanaged workplace stress leads to teacher burnout. With this in mind, the question is, what are we doing to both prevent and address the causes of stress in our schools?

Identifying workplace stressors

If we’re not prepared to take an objective look at the state of our schools and our approach to workplace wellbeing, it can be extremely difficult to uncover, acknowledge and address 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 insurmountable; therefore, they get swept under a rug (at times in favour of more operational or instructional goals), all with the hope that they won’t 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 or focus on the initiatves that are already working. 

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. 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 our 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 do their job and manage their associated demands competently.
  • 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 a school scan approach. Through my work, I’ve been collecting and analysing data regarding the top reported causes of stress across multiple Australian schools, and what I’m seeing is predictable. 

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

In my experience working with schools, I’ve seen many teachers express their frustrations around the number of emails they receive, the communication outside of working hours, last-minute requests to complete tasks, seemingly unrelated professional learning, and unnecessary data collection – just to name a few. In addition, 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 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 challenging student behaviour

Managing challenging student behaviour is an ongoing challenge for many teaching and support staff, and the pandemic’s impacts on student behaviour and relationships can’t be ignored. Another theme emerging in the data is that many staff members identify managing challenging student behaviour as a leading contributor to their stress. Teachers and staff may benefit from embedding strategic solutions, exploring 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 a clear vision, well-defined processes by the leadership team, and effective communication of expectations and processes throughout the school. For some schools, this may require a narrow strategic focus on student management over any additional focuses on instructional initiatives and programs.

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. 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. Workload expectations simply can not remain the same when there are insufficient staff on the ground. At the same time, prioritse filling roles that will have the most impact on alleviating some of the workloads. 

Lack of planning time

A teacher’s primary 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 pressures, 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 in 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 are 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 in-depth 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 together towards an improvement in school culture. 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 vital role in improving the school’s culture through their roles, responsibilities, openness, respectful feedback, and communication. 

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 Framework and ‘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!

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