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. 


How Placing Relationships at the Centre of our Practice is Key to School Leader Wellbeing

Research shows that the interpersonal demands placed on school leaders bring just as much stress, if not more, than the workload demands of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Relationships with adults, particularly teachers, are one of the most challenging aspects of a senior or middle leader’s role. Conflict most commonly occurs during periods of change, or over staff competency or discipline issues.

Many leaders are frustrated by the amount of time and energy they perceive as being “wasted” doing people work. Time that is taking them away from the “real work” of improving the school, through the development of the curriculum, systems and policies. Reshaping our thinking to place relationships at the centre of our leadership practice can significantly reduce stress levels and enhance our wellbeing and resilience.

Positive relationships are a central pillar of human flourishing. Human beings are hardwired for connection and the isolation and loneliness that many school leaders experience can have damaging effects on our long term health and wellbeing. Acknowledging the importance of connection and taking time, on a daily basis, to nurture the adult relationships in school is key in reducing stress and maximising our wellbeing.

So how do we build positive adult relationships in our schools? The first step is to acknowledge that school leadership is, first and foremost, people work. People work is the real work, rather than something that takes us away from the real work. The second step is to shed the leadership mask, take off the armour and present ourselves to others as authentic human beings. Making ourselves vulnerable by sharing our hopes, fears and challenges allows others to relate to us on a human level and provides an environment where genuine connections can be fostered.

Making time to connect with others is crucial, creating opportunities to develop an authentic relationship with every member of our team, enabling us to know them as individuals and providing time for them to get to know us too. Finding ways to show that we care and demonstrating the empathy and compassion that brought us into teaching in the first place is also key. Admiring others and letting them know they are appreciated, through sincere gratitude and praise should also be a part of our daily leadership practice. Building individual connections in this way builds trust and models for others the transformational potential of supportive relationships.

By improving our connection with others, we increase the number of positive emotions we experience each day, allowing for the release of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. During challenging times, this can counterbalance the stress hormones coursing through our bodies, which can be highly beneficial to health. More significant, however, is the impact of positive relationships on the emotional climate in which we work. By prioritising the people work and creating a culture built upon vulnerability and trust, the interpersonal demands of the role will decrease, allowing us to work in greater harmony with those around us, maximising not only our own wellbeing but that of everyone else.