Supporting the independent education community

Stress! Burnout! Among Teachers

Stress issues facing teachers.
Maureen is 42 years old, married and a mother of two children. She is a teacher. In the early years of teaching she found her work immensely satisfying. In recent times, however, she has found it increasingly difficult to remain on top of the job. School commitments of various kinds beyond her classroom role make inroads on her time and she finds it hard to cope with what she believes is her main task. She wonders how long she will be able to last. She feels "burnt out".

Andrew is 31 years old. He is a library technician working in a school. He is well qualified and performs ably but as time goes by he finds he is constantly being called upon to meet the unrealistic demands being placed upon him by other staff and by students. The equipment in the library is dated, in constant need of repair, yet there is little recognition of the impact this situation makes on the services he is able to provide. He wonders if it is all worthwhile.

Beryl is a school secretary. She is 55 years old. She works part-time in a primary school. However, the role she is called upon to perform at the front office is such that she would need to work full-time in order to properly fulfill it. She is constantly trying to meet deadlines. She often works unpaid overtime. The school claims it cannot afford to pay it. If she doesn't work overtime the work will be waiting for her the next morning. She is feeling stressed.

Mark is a school principal working in a primary school. He is 36 years old. This is his first city appointment. Mark's present employer, the local parish priest, has little idea about education generally. However he keeps a very tight rein on the school's finances, dictating funding priorities and making it difficult for the staff to effectively implement programs. Mark's desire to implement educational reform also meets considerable opposition from a vocal sector of the school community. He is feeling anxious about the situation and is, at times, somewhat irritable.

Do these pictures conform to the image of any people in your school? Possibly they do. Many employees in education are suffering from some form of stress or "burnout". And it is likely to affect all categories of employees. Very likely you yourself are experiencing the occupational stress associated with the teaching and learning process.

The Phenomenon
Stress is a complex phenomenon. It is a very subjective experience. What may be a challenge for one person will be a stressor for another. It depends largely on background experiences, temperament and environmental conditions. Occupational stress is that which derives specifically from conditions in the workplace. These may either cause stress initially or aggravate the stress already present from other sources. In today's typical workplace, stress is seen as becoming increasingly more common. People appear to be working longer hours, taking on higher levels of responsibility and exerting themselves ever more strenuously to meet rising expectations about job performance. Competition is sharp. There is always someone else ready to "step into one's shoes" should one be found wanting.

The education industry is not immune from this general phenomenon. For the last two decades at least, education staff in schools have been feeling the effects of the overwhelming demands being increasingly placed on them. Schools are being called upon to find the remedies for many of society's ills. They are often blamed for what goes wrong even if they do not have complete control over the matter. They are constantly called upon to incorporate new content and approaches into the curriculum; to develop new educational programs and pedagogical practices. Computing and information technology bring their own set of challenges. All these demands often have to be met in the face of cuts to education budgets and staffing schedules and calls for economies of every kind on all levels of school life. No wonder many employees working in schools claim they are working under stress or are experiencing "Burnout"!

What Then is Stress?
Stress is a part of life and is generated by constantly changing situations that a person must face. The term "stress" refers to an internal state which results from demanding, frustrating or unsatisfying conditions. A certain level of stress is unavoidable. In fact, an acceptable level of stress can serve as a stimulus to enhance performance. However, when the level of stress is such that the individual is incapable of satisfactorily dealing with it, then the effect on performance may be negative.

Stress may be seen as having two dimensions to it. First, there is the experiential aspect. This can be described as an unpleasant feeling which people have when they feel in a psychological state of distress or tension. This state relates to the way they perceive their present situation. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations where the individual begins to feel increasingly inadequate can be harmful. When the internal balance in a person's life is lost that person is suffering from stress.

Then there is the physiological aspect. According to some psychologists, in threatening situations the body responds with a "fight or flight" syndrome. Confronted by a challenging situation a person's body releases a charge of adrenalin which helps to equip it to either face the danger or run. Muscles become tense in readiness for action. Hormonal responses such as a rise in adrenalin can also occur when a person encounters desirable demands or when physical or mental effort is called for. Life without demands or excitement would be dull and boring. However, there is an optimal level of arousal beyond which physiological responses become unbalanced.

How Can Stress Be Recognised?
There are several categories of symptoms by which stress can be recognised. There are the emotional manifestations: irritability, anxiety, depression, nervousness, withdrawal or aloofness. Secondly, there may be a behavioural aspect: for instance, over-impulsiveness, aggressiveness, impaired ability to perceive and evaluate a situation, sometimes an excessive dependence on alcohol or analgesics. Thirdly, there are the interrelated cognitive and physiological aspects: anxious thinking-patterns which result in psychosomatic conditions such as excessive fatigue, high blood pressure, skin irritations, cardio-vascular diseases and susceptibility to infection. The physical ailments induced by stress can be of a short-term nature, for example, regular headaches or palpitations of the heart. Or they may be of a more long-term character: for instance, high blood pressure, heart disease, nervous tics or prolonged sexual irregularities.

Research into Occupational Stress in Teaching
Over the past two decades there have been numerous studies undertaken regarding teacher stress both overseas and in Australia. With respect to Australia, in the early 1980s there were the studies conducted by Rosemarie Otto.1 Since that time a series of publications has appeared in which the facts relating to stress among school teaching personnel have been examined and various conclusions drawn.

In line with this interest in research into stress among education employees, in the earlier part of 1996 both VIEU and the NSW/ACT IEU conducted research projects into workloads and perceptions of occupational stress among union members employed in Catholic and Independent schools in their respective states.2 In this article, for purposes of comparison, interest is focused especially on the data relating to teachers.

Conditions of Employment
The questionnaire administered to survey participants addressed the issue of workplace conditions and workloads. Among the most significant outcomes three factors could be highlighted:

Leadership Culture
From the responses in both research projects, it is evident that many teachers employed in non-government schools find the leadership culture in their schools either merely consultative (with only limited openness) or actually autocratic in nature. Only a minority found their school culture to be "very democratic"(6.6% Victoria, 8.7% NSW) or "democratic"(23.7% Victoria; 28.4% NSW). In both instances, the culture in Catholic schools was perceived by employees more favourably in terms of workplace democracy than was that of their Independent counterparts.

Hours of Work
Teacher participants reported on their face-to-face contact hours with students. Many full-time teachers in both the Victorian and NSW studies recorded contact hours in the upper bracket of 21+ hours per week. In the Victorian survey 49.7% of teachers indicated that they experience 21+ hours of direct student contact per week (7.8% in excess of 25 hours), while in the NSW study 42.8% reported that they did so (17.4% in excess of 25 hours). In both studies conditions in the Independent schools were seen to be more favourable than in the Catholic sector.

As regards non-contact time for individual classroom organisation and lesson preparation, again the figures were not favourable. In the Victorian study, 51.8% full-time teachers recorded less than four hours "release time" while in NSW 57.4% did so. In the Victorian study again conditions appeared more favourable in Independent schools where only 9.7% recorded fewer than four hours "release time". In the NSW survey, as regards primary schools, a similar advantage applied to the Independent sector. In the NSW secondary schools, however, Independent schools were less favoured. In fact, Catholic secondary teachers had the advantage.

In both studies it was clear that teaching staff spent long hours at schools: 55.3% of full-time teachers in Victoria and 45.9 % in NSW spent in excess of 41 hours at the workplace. Many hours at home were also expended on school work: 20.5% of the Victorian and 26.7% of the NSW teacher samples reported that they performed in excess of 11 hours school work per week at home. The figures in both studies showed that teaching staff were also called back to school frequently at night and on weekends for various forms of school-related and extra-curricular activities. In the Victorian survey it was clear that in Independent schools the situation was even less favourable on this point than in the Catholic sector.

Class Sizes
Much work overload is associated with class size. The Victorian study showed that this factor constitutes a more acute problem for teachers working in Catholic schools than for those in the Independent sector: 60.4% of teachers in Catholic schools reported classes in excess of 26 students (18.1% taught classes greater than 31) as against 23.9% of those in Independent schools doing so.

As well as the factors mentioned in some detail above, there were other workplace conditions which were a cause of concern to survey participants in both studies. These related to the stress associated with ambiguities deriving from inadequacy of role description, lack of employee input into the role description and calls for operating outside it. There were perceived problems relating also to unsatisfactory travel arrangements regarding the workplace use of private vehicles.

Occupational Stressors
Given the employment conditions and the workloads reported upon in the surveys, it would not be surprising to find that fairly high levels of stress were recorded by survey participants. Respondents were asked to record "high" ,"moderate" or "low" levels of stress on a range of variables under
nine headings:

  1. Communications/management;
  2. Access to facilities/resources;
  3. Physical environment;
  4. Workload pressures;
  5. Demands of professionalism;
  6. Student-staff relationships;
  7. Parent-staff relationships;
  8. Contract of employment;
  9. Career prospects.

The outcomes of the survey in both states revealed that there were four major areas perceived to be of particular concern as stressors. In order of magnitude the following appeared to be of special significance for teachers:

Workload Pressures. For example, 85.1% of the Victorian and 91.9% of the NSW teacher samples recorded either "high" or "moderate" levels of stress deriving from the multiplicity of tasks to be performed by the teacher within given time constraints; and 75.9% of the Victorian sample and 86.2% of the NSW one reported "high" or "moderate" stress levels ensuing from the constancy of the work effort. Student reporting/assessment and the diversity of student needs were also seen as significant stressors by both sets of respondents;

Demands of professionalism. Some variables subsumed under this heading were seen as being a cause of considerable stress. In particular, the effort to keep abreast of educational change (79.4% of the Victorian and 76.8% of the NSW samples recording "high" or "moderate" stress levels) was seen as significant; as was the effort to adopt new teaching strategies and approaches (70.2% Victoria; 78.4% NSW);

Communications/management. Some variables relating to school culture and management structure/processes were perceived as being causes of stress. In both the Victorian and NSW studies the combined figures for "high" and "moderate" scores were relatively high especially as regards the quality of staff communications (61.8% Victoria; 74.1% NSW); the quality of staff consultation (66.6% Victoria; 74.1% NSW); and school decision making processes (67.1% Victoria; 77.5% NSW);

Career prospects. Another area of particular concern related to the stressors associated with the perceived lack of a career path for teachers. In particular, in both the Victorian and NSW surveys the combined "high" and "moderate" stress scores were relatively high with respect to the perceived lack of "fit" between pay and skills/responsibilities (69.3% Victoria; 75.2% NSW) and the lack of promotion opportunity (61.8% Victoria; 59.6% NSW).

Lower stress scores tended to be associated with the variables under the headings:

  1. Physical environment;
  2. Student-staff relationships;
  3. Parent-staff relationships;
  4. Contract of employment (especially security of tenure).

Nevertheless, these areas were by no means seen as stress-free. Crowded classrooms and work stations and the lack of control over the temperature in classrooms and work stations were seen as stress-inducing as was limited access to teaching resources and the prevalence of unrealistic parent expectations.

It remains true, however, that these sets of variables were perceived as being of less significance as stressors than the four already detailed.

Manifestations of Stress
Respondents in both the Victorian and NSW studies were asked to provide information on the manifestations of stress in their own lives. Usually the responses indicated manifestations of a behavioural nature: irritability at home (52.6% Victoria; 65.4% NSW) or irritability in the classroom (50.9% Victoria; 58.0% NSW). Often the manifestation would be experiential in the sense of internal feelings of anxiety (64.9% Victoria: 62.9% NSW) or feelings of powerlessness and futility (41.6% Victoria; 49.3% NSW). A number of teacher respondents recorded stress manifestations of a psychosomatic character (12.7% Victoria; 23.8% NSW). Psychosomatic complaints mentioned included chronic fatigue/exhaustion, shingles, abdominal complaints, vulnerability to virus infection, muscular tension, palpitations of the heart, respiratory disorders and recurring headaches.

Stress Relief
Both surveys invited participants to indicate factors which provided stress relief. There was congruence in the outcomes on this point also. In both studies highest priority was given to the relief provided by support from colleagues (85.9% of Victorian sample; 84.3% of NSW sample). Seen as second in importance in both instances was the taking of approved leave (63.6% Victoria; 61.9% NSW). A similar congruence of priorities and statistics was seen with respect to reduced teaching load, reduced class sizes and support from employer/principal as a means of providing stress relief.

Coping Strategies
When asked to provide information concerning a conscious effort to cope with stress, similar priorities and relativity of statistics were found in the studies. In both instances, strategies most frequently cited, centred on efforts to share the burden of stress with others by seeking the support of family/friends (67.9% Victoria; 60.8% NSW) or colleagues (71.9% Victoria; 62.9% NSW); or on efforts to enhance individual professional performance (64.9% Victoria; 71.7% NSW).

Importance in both cases was attached to engaging in physical activity or hobbies as a form of relaxation. In both instances also, relatively less importance appeared to be ascribed to involvement in school decision-making processes as a means of coping with stress (41.2% of Victorian sample; 40.9% NSW). The strategies adopted tended to be individualistic in their orientation; and to seat the reason for stress in the limitations of the individual.

Invoking union assistance in dealing with stress was a relatively low priority in both cases (13.6% of Victorian sample; 7.7% NSW). It was clear from the studies that teachers are tending to adopt solutions to stress which are of a social nature or which deal with the problem on an individual personal basis. The strategies adopted are of an essentially non-political nature. This tends to suggest a situation accepted by teachers as something to be coped with and adapted to, but not challenged.

Teacher Satisfaction
Despite the high levels of stress involved, teaching brings its own intrinsic rewards. The surveys provided participants with the opportunity to indicate the sources of job satisfaction they experienced. In both instances, work satisfaction was found to be centred mainly on the teacher's relationship with students or with colleagues. The most significant sources of job satisfaction were recorded as follows:

relationship with students (90.3% Victorian sample; 94.4% NSW);
relationship with colleagues (84.2% Victoria; 84.6% NSW).
student progress (82.9% Victoria; 86.7% NSW);
student appreciation of teacher effort (75.0% Victoria; 72.0% NSW);
student attitudes to learning (66.7% Victoria; 60.8% NSW);
professional freedom to select teaching methods (64.0% Victoria; 69.9% NSW);
general behaviour of students (63.6% Victoria; 59.8% NSW).

The congruence of outcomes on these points is evident. In both instances, participation in school decision-making was relatively less frequently seen as a source of job satisfaction by the teachers surveyed.(39.9% Victoria; 47.2% NSW). This outcome may reflect a school situation which, in fact, accords teachers limited scope for such involvement.

From this brief outline of some of the main findings of these two surveys it is evident that the level of occupational stress among teaching personnel in non-government schools in Victoria and New South Wales is high, and that the stressors involved are multiple and varied. This fact poses a challenge to the education unions involved. In the face of evidence of this kind the task confronting them in the immediate future would appear to be a complex one.

To begin with, there is the question of consciousness-raising among members concerning instruments/processes already at hand whereby some of the issues of occupational stress may be addressed at the workplace level. For instance, the development of a more collegial school culture, school consultative committee processes, the local implementation of Award clauses relating to the introduction of change into the workplace, Health and Safety legislation and associated codes of practice. Union organising and training strategies and policy development processes need to accommodate this challenge.

Secondly, there is the matter of a more extensive regulatory framework. Awards/ Agreements need to reflect teacher concerns regarding such issues as class sizes, official hours of duty, levels of extra-curricular involvement, extension of "paid time" activity and the ready availability of sabbatical leave. More adequate provisions on all these matters would provide a better regulatory framework within which education staff would be able to find solutions to some of their stress problems at the school level. Such a task has proved a daunting one in the light of employer opposition and the endemic budgetary constraints under which schools operate and within which unions are obliged to carry out their negotiations. Nevertheless, this challenge remains an imperative and is one the unions are taking up. In recent months, for example, the NSW/ACT IEU has been negotiating Agreements relating to such matters. And unions in other states are currently considering the issue.

Finally, education funding must be considered. The root cause of stress among education personnel remains the question of school resourcing. It was evident from the surveys that the question of occupational stress is intimately bound up with lack of funding, the under-staffing of schools and with the lack of access to educational resources of various kinds. This matter cannot be resolved by unions alone. What is demanded is a change in national priorities, a heightening of community expectations as regards schooling and collective political action among coalitions of interested groups to bring about the needed change. This is a challenge that unions can assist in implementing and which they are anxious to assume.


Rosemarie Otto, Occupational Stress Among Teachers in Post-Primary Education: A Study of Teachers in Technical Schools and Some Comparative Data on High School Teachers, Department of Sociology, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne, 1982;
Responding to Stress: A Study of Coping Modes Among Secondary School Teachers and the Relationship of Coping Styles to Stress, Powerlessness and Social Support, Department of Sociology, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne, 1985;
Structural Sources of Teacher Stress in State High Schools, Department of Sociology, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne, 1983.
Education and Stress. Report on the Survey Conducted by the Victorian Independent Education Union on Workloads and Perceptions of Occupational Stress Among Union Members Employed in Catholic Schools and Education Offices and in Independent Schools, 1996;
Report on the NSW Independent Education Union Stress Survey, 1996.