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Teacher Burnout: Is Workload the Elephant in the Room or Just a Tick Box?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 15th October 2022

In my last article Why Schools Should Do More to Improve Workplace Culture, I highlighted the important role that workplace culture plays in preventing staff burnout. I also discussed how high levels of stress erode the quality of the workplace culture. Research into incivility in the workplace shows that stress is the number one reason why employees behave badly towards each other. While supportive collegial relationships can help buffer against burnout, schools cannot hope to build a positive workplace culture without also dealing with issues of workload.

Workload and Burnout

Studies show that workload is the single biggest contributor to the burnout of teaching staff in schools.  Yet despite increasing interest in improving the wellbeing of staff, many schools seem reluctant to address workload effectively. For some, workload has become the elephant in the room, the issue that we all know is there, but choose to ignore. For others, workload reduction has become a tick box exercise, given only perfunctory treatment to satisfy inspection frameworks. 

Barriers to Addressing Workload

So why are schools unable to address workload effectively? Clearly for schools in the state sector, governments play a large part in creating an environment where excessive workloads are the norm but across all sectors the attitude of leaders and governing bodies is also highly influential.  School leadership operates in high-pressure environments, often with limited resources. For many leaders and governors, workload is seen as a Pandora’s Box or a genie that once let out of the bottle can never be put back in. Leaders feel powerless to make meaningful change and fear the consequences of not being able to follow-through on commitments, which may impact on trusting relationships between staff and leadership. They also worry about eroding the work ethic essential to the running of schools and giving less committed staff a free pass to do less. Discussions about workload, with staff or their representatives, can also leave leaders feeling personally attacked and wounded, or create an “us and them” situation.  These are all valid concerns that lead many schools to avoid addressing the workload issue or do only the minimum that their inspection framework requires. 

Wellbeing and Culture as a Shared Responsibility

The best way to address this situation, and put workload properly on the agenda, is for schools to foster an environment where wellbeing and workplace  culture are seen as the shared responsibility of all staff, rather than something that only leaders can fix or bestow. This includes tackling issues of workload together, as a collaborative endeavour, moving away from a culture of blame. Within this environment, schools can identify when, where and for whom workload is excessive, through the implementation of regular workload surveys, focus groups and one-to-one discussions. Teams can work together constructively to find solutions and leaders can be open about the limited resources available and help staff to understand the non-negotiables. 

Small Changes Have Impact

Studies show that even small changes to a teacher’s workload can make a huge impact on the quality of their life.  Working collaboratively to identify outmoded and unnecessary practices, finding more efficient ways of working, paying attention to the school calendar and using time-saving technology can make a real difference to an individual’s workload. Collaborating with other schools that have successfully addressed some of their workload issues is also a highly effective way to share ideas, tools and strategies. 

Schools are busy places and workload is a complex matter.  Schools will never be able to address all of their workload issues but this is not a reason to ignore them or pay them superficial attention. Tweaks to reduce workload can make a huge difference to the wellbeing of staff and to the quality of the workplace culture, which can help reduce stress, create a sense of belonging and improve collegial relationships. It is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room or move away from the tick box and approach workload with less trepidation. 

Ten Tips for Identifying and Addressing Workload Issues

  1. Foster an environment where wellbeing and workplace culture is seen as the shared responsibility of all staff.

  2. Accept that workload issues are different for everyone and make a commitment to identify what the issues are, rather than presuming you know already. 

  3. Create a Wellbeing Team, with representation from all groups of staff, both academic and non-academic, who will be responsible for liaising with staff and leadership around identifying and addressing workload issues. 

  4. Develop a collection of short, well-constructed workload surveys tailored for different categories of job role and conduct regular, anonymous workload surveys at key points during the school year. 

  5. Follow up the workload surveys with small focus groups, aimed at staff in specific job roles to dig deeper into the issues.

  6. Share data from the workload survey and focus groups with all staff and work collaboratively with them, through the Wellbeing Team, to set goals for improvement. 

  7. Include discussions around individual workload as part of the appraisal process.

  8. Include discussions around team workload as part of the appraisal process for all team leaders, including SLT.

  9. Conduct exit interviews, with questions targeted at workload, for all departing staff. 

  10. Reach out to other schools within your network for ideas, tools and strategies to address workload.