The Epidemic of Workplace Stress Facing Women Educators

The current teacher strikes in New Zealand have brought into sharp relief the issues facing overworked and stressed educators around the world. On social media groups increasing stories are posted of, once committed, educators leaving the profession to seek alternative ways of making a living. I have addressed in other articles Overcoming Teacher Stress and Burnout and Why is the School Principal’s Role so Emotionally Demanding? the stresses faced by our teachers and school leaders. Notably, across a range of industries, women are reporting increasingly higher levels of workplace stress than men. This is particularly pertinent in schools, where women make up around three quarters of the workforce. We know that women in the workplace are facing an epidemic of poor mental and physical health. It is in the interests of society to address this issue. As the educators of future-generations, we need to ensure our female teachers and leaders are able to work to their full potential, rather than falling prey to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

In the UK, 79% of women report workplace stress compared to 66% of men (The 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey). In a US study, 28% of women reported having a great deal of stress compared to 20% of men, with almost half of women reporting increasing stress levels over the past five years (2018 APA Stress in America Survey). Research shows that women report more high distress days than men and fewer no stress days. They also report a greater incidence of distress episodes (Almeida, 1998).  

While this data may be the result of gender differences in the perception of stress, or willingness to report stress, we do know  that women are more likely than men to suffer from a range of mental health outcomes. Women aged 25-40 are 3-4 times more likely to become depressed than men and women are 4 times more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Women are also more likely than men to become depressed when family relationships are disrupted and are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety-related disorders (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Women have more sensitive adrenal systems than men (Gallucci et al, 1993), have a stronger genetic predisposition to depression and experience more hormone fluctuations associated with depression, including premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression and menopause.

Women are much more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. In a study by the American Psychological Association women were more likely than men to report each of ten specific symptoms of stress, including lack of sleep, irritability, fatigue and depression (2018 APA Stress in America Survey). Three important studies from around the world have also uncovered strong links between women’s job stress and cardiovascular disease. The Women’s Health Study at Harvard Medical School found that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease, while a large 15-year study of nurses in Denmark (Allesoe et al, 2010) concluded that the greater the work pressure, the higher the risk for heart disease among women age 51 and under. A study of white-collar workers in Beijing (Xu et al, 2009) found that job strain was associated in women (but not in men) with increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, an early sign of cardiovascular disease. This should concern us, as women are three times more likely to die following a heart attack than men (Allabas et al, 2017) due to heart disease going undetected and untreated. Men are more likely to experience chest pain as a symptom of heart disease than women and, therefore, more likely to seek medical advice, whereas the symptoms that women experience such as fatigue and sleep disturbance are more easily dismissed.

So what is causing such high levels of stress in the female workforce? Firstly, we know that women perceive the quality of their working environment to be significantly lower than men (Stier & Yaish, 2014). Women are less likely to experience job satisfaction, be happy with their job flexibility and opportunities for advancement than men. Women also report higher levels of hostile social interactions, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The pay gap is also a major factor here. The average income for a female worker in the United States is around 80% of her male counterpart’s. This gender-based disparity in remuneration has been established as a major stressor at work, with a woman’s income level being closely linked with anxiety and depression Platt et al. (2014). Even in executive-level jobs, where individuals earn large salaries, women are still almost three times more likely to develop mental health problems as a result of the pay gap.

A number of studies have demonstrated how women feel the need to constantly prove themselves at work, by working harder than their male colleagues, in order to satisfy others of their level of  competence. Women are more likely to over-invest in their careers and accumulate unnecessary credentials, due to the implicit gender bias in favour of men (Risse, 2018). This brings significant additional workload and pressure for women, who are already overstretched. As carers and nurturers, women are also more likely to engage in emotional labour in the workplace, including “surface acting” where they force emotions that are not genuinely felt or mask true emotions. This emotional labour is associated with both emotional exhaustion and burnout (Hochschild, 1983).

The scope and nature of responsibilities in the home may also impact on women’s stress levels in the workplace. The United Nations reports that women perform nearly three times as much unpaid domestic work as men, bringing significant, additional workload and pressures. Women between the ages of 35 and 49, who may be responsible for both child care and the care of elderly parents, report the highest levels of workplace stress of any group. Married women also report more job stress than unmarried women, due to the demands of the roles assigned to them in the home (Parveen, 2009).

It seems that the impact of gender bias against women in the workplace, combined with the unfair distribution of workload in the home and our predisposition to a range of mental health issues may be resulting in a female workforce that is highly stressed and vulnerable. In the education sector, where women make up a massive proportion of the workforce, we are in danger of high stress levels undermining the fabric of our schools and communities. We need to find ways to address these issues, as a matter of urgency, if we are to avoid female teachers and leaders leaving the profession in droves or simply becoming burnt out . In this context, traditional stress management approaches, which place the onus on the individual to implement coping strategies, may be woefully inadequate to deal with the epidemic of stress we are facing. Governments and schools need to find ways to decrease work overload and stress for all educators but they also need to acknowledge the factors that make women, the majority of the profession, more vulnerable to workplace stress and its impacts. We need to raise awareness of the issues facing the female workforce and ensure these issues can be addressed at a governmental or organisational level rather than placing the onus on the individual.

Overcoming Teacher Stress and Burnout

Teacher stress and burnout is becoming more prevalent, with 67% of UK teachers describing themselves as stressed (Teacher Wellbeing Index, 2018); 58% of US teachers reporting poor mental health (American Federation of Teachers, 2017) and 57% of international school teachers expressing concerns about their wellbeing (ICS, 2019). Teachers experience higher levels of stress and burnout than most other professions (Stoeber & Rennert, 2008), with teaching being among the top three most stressful occupations in the UK (Cooper, 2015).

The main causes of teacher stress are identified in a comprehensive body of research. I categorise them into three areas

  • Classroom Stress– includes heavy workload, large class sizes, managing student behaviour, supporting the profound social and emotional needs of students, integrating students with a host of diverse needs and challenges and pressure to achieve assessment targets.  
  • System Stress– brought on mostly by rapid and constant educational change with lack of leadership support, inadequate collegial support, poor communication, lack of involvement in decision-making, role ambiguity and lack of status and recognition for teachers.  
  • Relationship Stress – includes challenging interactions with students, parents, colleagues and leadership. 

Studies from across multiple countries and systems report teachers feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed and depressed. Teachers report a number of physical symptoms including headaches, sleep problems, high blood pressure and chest pain. They also share how stress impacts their professional lives leaving them feeling inadequate, disengaged, isolated and resentful.  In addition, the lack of personal time available to teachers results in them being forced to choose work over home, which has a range of knock on effects for both teachers and their families. 

“Teachers worn down by their work exhibit reduced work goals, lower responsibility for work outcomes, lower idealism, heightened emotional detachment, work alienation, and self-interest. When teachers become burned out, or worn out, their students’ achievement outcomes are likely to suffer because they are more concerned with their personal survival.” (Richardson, Watt, & Devos, 2013, p. 231).

A range of factors may protect teachers against stress or mitigate against the negative impacts of stress. These include an increased sense of self-efficacy (Klassen et al, 2012), connectedness with students and colleagues (Flook et al., 2013) and work recognition (Gardner, 2010). Teachers across all systems respond well to more positive work environments built on bonds of trust and mutual respect, where they feel valued and experience both leadership and collegial support.

In international schools, positive work environments and good relationships take on an even greater importance. Recent ICS research (ICS, 2019) demonstrates the importance of strong, supportive relationships in enabling international school teachers to cope with their stresses.  “We felt that, in part, this was because people were often moving away from their families and established relationships, and that transitioning between schools can be traumatic for anyone” (ICS, 2019).

Developing a strategic approach towards positive relationships built around a whole school ethos, that puts relationships first, is key to reducing stress in all school settings and is the single most important step that school leaders can take to reduce the impact of stress on their staff. If we are to prevent the potentially devastating effects of stress on individual teachers and their families, on the teaching profession and on schools, as teachers leave in droves, school leaders need to start acknowledging the underlying causes of teacher stress and focus on developing collaborative and supportive school cultures as a priority. 


Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader

In a previous article, The Loneliness of the International School Leader, I wrote about the professional and personal isolation of principals and heads around the world.We are built for social contact and there are serious, potentially life-threatening consequences when we do not get enough (Marano, 2003). Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). In the short-term, loneliness increases the level of circulating stress hormones in the body and impacts negatively on the quality and quantity of sleep, both closely linked to performance and effectiveness in our school leader roles. Longer term loneliness is associated with a wide range of physical and mental ill-health outcomes including depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease, stroke, alcoholism and drug abuse. Lonely people also have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012). It is crucial, therefore, that we take the issue of school leader isolation seriously and find ways to support principals and heads who may be experiencing loneliness.

Loneliness can be overcome, although it does require a conscious effort. The starting point is to recognise the loneliness, understand the effects it can have on your life and acknowledge that something needs to change (Marano, 2003). The second step is to focus on developing quality relationships with others. In my own research (Kelly, 2017) school leaders least vulnerable to isolation were those who worked as part of highly collaborative teams within the workplace or who understood the value of the people work in their schools and focused upon building positive relationships with their staff. By contrast those who felt the most isolated were often those caught up in the myth of the hero leader, feeling unable to share the burden of leadership even with their closest colleagues. Being honest about the struggles we face as leaders involves making ourselves vulnerable, which for many runs contrary to the idea of the strong and effective leader. Vulnerability, however, makes us more human and likeable and makes it easier to connect with others. Shedding the leadership mask and presenting to colleagues as a flawed human being makes us more relatable and authentic as leaders. We can also play a key role in modelling this for others, creating a culture of trust built on authenticity and vulnerability, factors essential to organisational effectiveness.

Humans are hardwired for connection and one of the ways we connect with others is by confiding in each other. An open style of leadership can protect us from loneliness but as school leaders we will not be able to confide everything to our teams.  It is, therefore, important that we find a confidant in school, someone who understands the context and can be trusted to be discrete. Developing strong peer relationships with senior colleagues, or even board members, is something we should prioritise and something that schools should be looking to create through team-building days and regular SLT social events. 

Reaching out to colleagues outside of our schools is a key way to receive support and gain perspective. In my research, networking with senior colleagues in other schools, meeting socially to swap stories, empathise and offer advice was a real lifeline for many participants. Most cities or countries with a large number of international schools have principal groups that allow for this kind of collaboration. Others reported having created new groups on arrival in the city. Reaching out to former colleagues through Skype and at conferences is also a way to stay connected to others.

Building social connections outside of the workplace is a key strategy to avoid loneliness. The internet and social media makes it so much easier to find groups and clubs that share our interests these days. When we are exhausted, short of time and fear rejection, however, it can be hard to make the effort to reach out to others. Principals in my research who experienced the highest levels of loneliness reported having no hobbies, interests or social connections outside of school. Those who were most lonely were single or married without children and many experienced high levels of personal as well as professional loneliness. However, many participants with families or local friends also reported feeling isolated and unable to confide in their nearest and dearest about the challenges of their role. The message here is that failing to make the time or effort to reach out to others may come at a devastating cost and is something that needs to be prioritised, no matter how hard it is. Boards and senior leadership teams should be proactive in providing gym or club memberships to new leaders and also providing language lessons, where appropriate, to ensure that language issues do not further isolate individuals. 

The use of professional leadership coaches is something that should be provided for all senior school leaders. While this practice is becoming more widespread, it is still rare. Professional coaches can provide a buffer against hard times for any leader, no matter how experienced, and can provide a valuable safety net to those who are most isolated. Whilst expensive, the benefits far outweigh the costs and the provision of regular executive coaching should become part of every school leader’s contract. 

On a final note, we all have a responsibility to ensure our colleagues do not fall prey to loneliness. Taking time to recognise that a peer may be isolated and making an effort to connect with that person, supporting them to find a route out of loneliness is the decent, human response to the misery we see in others. Making ourselves vulnerable and sharing our own isolation stories may encourage others to be more honest and open about the challenges they are up against and may just help them out of a hole.