Prof. Patricia Mannix McNamara
Head of the School of Education, University of Limerick
Doctoral Scholar, School of Education, University of Limerick
Ignoring systemic stress at our peril
There is growing discourse in the teaching profession about stress and educator well-being. Ignoring the increasing pace of education work, and the increasing pressures that go with it, will not result in these pressures going away. Given the challenges in recruiting school principals due to workload, stress, and burnout, this article calls for the need to recognise and engage with these issues.
Recent years have been characterised by radical reform in education, particularly in post-primary schools. The national curricular reform agenda has resulted in a welcome reconceptualising of the role of the teacher that has fostered agency and recognition of teachers as curriculum innovators. Increased accountability in the profession and the changing nature of curriculum have come at some cost, however, with teachers often decrying ‘initiative overload’.
There is little doubt of a growing discourse in the profession about stress and claims of reduced educator well-being. It is not limited to the primary and post-primary sectors. Educators in further and higher education also experience growing pressure and collective stress, influenced in no small part by poorer funding, increased workloads, and often unmanageable expectations. Ignoring the increasing pace of education work, and the increasing stress and pressures that go with it, will not result in these pressures simply going away.
Stress results from the perception of the demands placed on a person and the resources available to address those demands (McCarthy et al., 2010; Reiser and McCarthy, 2017). Curriculum change is a significant contributor to teacher stress (Putwain and von der Embse, 2019). The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), based on a Red C poll in 2018, identified rising workload as contributing to increased stress and falling job satisfaction among teachers. Its then president pointed to the fact that teachers’ work has changed significantly in the past decade, with teachers trying to keep up with the expansion of their role, new initiatives in schools, and the faster pace of their implementation.
Teaching has often been perceived as stressful work; current research and discourse point to the scale of the problem and the attendant lower morale in the profession. Teachers clearly feel the pressure that comes with expectations of student achievement and increased accountability.
Stress is often seen as an individually bounded problem. But an interesting, less thought about, and perhaps more insidious aspect is that stress often engenders further stress in others (Deasy et al., 2016). As students progress through post-primary schooling, the focus turns sharply onto the pressures of the Leaving Certificate, and assessment is the main stressor reported by students. When students experience assessment stress, ironically it impairs their judgement and their ability to think, learn, and concentrate (Stixrud, 2012). Teacher stress is also associated with adverse impact on student academic achievement (Richards et al., 2016; Reiser and McCarthy, 2017). The literature is clear that organisational behaviour associated with stress causes school ineffectiveness (Griffith, 2004). As such, it is vital that the profession take cognisance of the intersubjectivity and interrelationality of stress.
Levels of stress appear to be pervasive in educational institutions and indeed in life more generally. The proliferation of mindfulness programmes and initiatives to support work–life balance and work well-being show the increasing acknowledgment of the need to address the challenges posed by stress and burnout. The nature of education work has changed considerably. For example, increasing prioritisation of performance indicators has fostered workaholism in educational institutions across Ireland, with 50 per cent of academics reporting workaholic tendencies (Hogan et al., 2016).
Yet the evidence shows that workaholic behaviours do not increase productivity and are linked to negative health outcomes such as stress and burnout (ibid.). The implications for the system are worrisome, as stress and burnout are precursors of teacher attrition (McCarthy et al., 2010; Prilleltensky et al., 2016; Richards et al., 2016; Fernández-Aguayo et al., 2017; Reiser and McCarthy, 2017). We have not yet felt the burden of teacher attrition in Ireland at the level that is evident in the UK, but the warning signs are there for school leader attrition and recruitment. We would benefit from paying heed to the trends in the profession among our nearest neighbours.
In recent times the Guardian has reported consistently on teacher conditions. It reveals, based on an OECD study of 48 countries, that UK secondary school teachers have one of highest workloads in the world, and that teacher workload is linked to psychological distress. A recent article titled ‘Record levels of stress “put teachers at breaking point”’ reports that ‘“burnt-out” school staff are suffering severe psychological problems’. It quotes Sinéad Mc Brearty, chief executive of the Education Support charity: ‘Overwork has become normalised. Education professionals don’t feel trusted. . . . They are almost twice as anxious as the general population.’
School leaders are often seen as the solution to the problem of teacher stress, yet principals themselves are experiencing overload. A recent article in the Irish Times, titled ‘Ever-expanding workload turning teachers off becoming principals’, cites Kieran Golden, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), as identifying the shortage of teachers willing to take on the role of school principal and warning that it will be the ‘next emergency’ in education.
Principals are often perceived to have a duty to reduce stress, offer support, and promote and improve job satisfaction (McCarthy et al., 2010; Ho, 2016). But they work in constrained systems with limited autonomy to effect the systemic change that is required to address workload and the sometimes toxic staffroom cultures. School leaders are influential but they also carry the weight of expectations of school success in ever more performative educative agendas.
Simkins (2005) writes that ‘leadership is one of the major factors – sometimes it seems the only factor – that will determine whether an educational organization, be it a school, a college or a university, will succeed or fail’. However, according to Lynch (2016), ‘when success is judged exclusively by measurable performances (rankings and league tables of colleges, schools and people) what cannot be numerically recorded becomes inconsequential’. Navigating these competing imperatives, promoting positive work cultures, and protecting the work–life balance of their staff can be a mammoth task for school leaders.
Workaholic behaviours do not increase productivity and are linked to negative health outcomes such as stress and burnout.
It is unhelpful, in stress discourse, to position stress as an individual problem, with no recognition given to the systemic and organisational antecedents of stress and burnout in the profession. Research has shown that a change in work culture in recent decades has encouraged long hours and increased work intensity (Mazzetti et al., 2014). Stress, burnout, overload, and diminished mental health have become the zeitgeist. Discourses of well-being abound in education in Ireland but are global in terms of the issues raised.
While the need for educational reform is acknowledged, the way that reforms are implemented must allow for the impact on those whose work lives they deeply affect. Stress, burnout, and overload are not solely attributable to reform: they are also linked to performativity (which current reform is seeking to address) and to work cultures; they are systemic, not individual, in antecedence.
Principal associations – the IPPN and the NAPD – are calling for the need to listen to what the research and trends in the profession are showing. The systemic warning signals are there. We ignore them at our peril.
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