How can a teacher’s workload and autonomy at the start of term impact their levels of emotional exhaustion and intentions to quit the profession by the time they reach the end of the term? In our latest reader submission, Dr Rebecca J Collie and Dr Annemaree Carroll share the findings of their Australian research and the implications for teachers and schools.
Across Australia, there are concerns about the high rates of attrition and stress among teachers. Two key factors implicated in this are high workloads and job control. Whereas high workloads are known to be detrimental for teachers, job control is linked with greater wellbeing at work. Understanding how teachers experience these 2 factors is important for guiding efforts to better support teachers, particularly given growing teacher shortages in Australia (Australian Government Department of Education, 2022).
In our study (Collie & Carroll, 2023), we examined 401 Australian teachers’ experiences of workload and job control at the beginning and end of a school term.
The findings, published in Teaching and Teacher Education, suggest that the teachers varied on their experiences of these 2 factors in distinct ways, and that particular combinations or patterns at the beginning of term seemed to dictate how teachers fared across the school term, including their emotional exhaustion and intentions to quit their jobs.
Helping to reduce teachers’ workloads at the beginning of a school term, and giving teachers more control over the work they do and how they do it appear important for supporting teachers’ wellbeing and retention.
Perceptions of workload stress and job control
Our study examined teachers’ sense of workload stress and job control.
- Workload stress (also referred to as time pressure) involves teachers’ perceptions that they don’t have enough time to do all the work expected of them.
- Job control (also referred to as work autonomy) involves teachers’ sense that they have control over what and how they do tasks at work.
We looked at how these 2 factors co-occurred among teachers and if there were distinct combinations - that is, we wanted to see if there were particular profiles of teachers who experienced similar combinations.
Next, we examined whether membership in a particular profile at the beginning of term was linked with the specific profiles that teachers ended the term in. We also looked at how membership in the profiles was linked with emotional exhaustion and intentions to quit.
- Emotional exhaustion is a key component of burnout and involves feeling emotionally drained from work.
- Intentions to quit refers to teachers’ plans to seek out other work and quit their current job.
What teacher profiles did we find?
Using data collected from teachers across Australia in 2021, we identified 5 teacher profiles.
There were 2 maladaptive profiles characterised by higher levels of workload stress and lower levels of job control. These teachers felt under pressure from their workload at the beginning of term and felt they had little say in how they did their work.
There were also 2 adaptive profiles that were characterised by lower levels of workload stress and higher levels of job control. These teachers were faring well at the beginning of the term – they had manageable workloads and had control over their work tasks.
We also found a midway profile that was characterised by high workload stress, but average job control. So, although these teachers were doing okay in terms of their job control, they were struggling from a high workload at the beginning of the term.
When we compared teachers at the start and end of the term, we found that teachers who began the term in maladaptive profiles, tended to end the term in maladaptive profiles. Teachers who began the term in adaptive profiles tended to end the term in adaptive profiles. And teachers who began the term in the midway profile, tended to move into the maladaptive profiles by the end of term.
Teachers in the maladaptive and midway profiles also reported greater emotional exhaustion and intentions to quit. The reverse was true for teachers in adaptive profiles – they reported the lowest levels of emotional exhaustion and were least likely to want to quit their job.
What does this mean for teachers and schools?
Helping to reduce teachers’ workloads at the beginning of a school term appears crucial. Teachers who began the term already experiencing higher workload stress and lower job control continued to struggle throughout the term and this was linked with lower wellbeing and greater intentions to quit their job.
Conversely, teachers who began the term from a strong position of lower workload stress and higher job control tended to end the term in similarly adaptive profiles, and also reported greater wellbeing and less motivation to quit.
In practice, efforts to streamline teachers' work are important (Australian Government Department of Education, 2022), such as reducing administrative tasks and face-to-face teaching time. Building effective collaboration (Carroll et al., 2021) between teachers within schools to share workloads is another approach that can be helpful.
To increase job control, it is important that schools listen to teachers’ needs and perspectives at work, and provide opportunities for teachers to have input in decision-making and policies (Collie, 2021). It is also essential that teachers have some choice and control over when and how they undertake their work.
Australian Government Department of Education. (2022, December 16). National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. https://www.education.gov.au/teaching-and-school-leadership/consultations/national-teacher-workforce-action-plan
Carroll, A., Flynn, L., O’Connor, E. S., Forrest, K., Bower, J., Fynes-Clinton, S., York, A. & Ziaei, M. (2021). In their words: listening to teachers’ perceptions about stress in the workplace and how to address it. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 49(4), 420-434. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2020.1789914
Collie, R. J. (2021). COVID-19 and teachers’ somatic burden, stress, and emotional exhaustion: Examining the role of principal leadership and workplace buoyancy. Aera Open, 7, 2332858420986187. https://doi.org/10.1177/23328584209861
Collie, R. J., & Carroll, A. (2023). Autonomy-pressure profiles among teachers: Changes over a school term, leadership predictors, and workplace outcomes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 124, 103998. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2022.103998
Does your school have a wellbeing plan for teachers as well as students? As a school leader, have you ever done a wellbeing check of staff at the start of each term?
One suggestion in this article for how to ease workloads is to build collaboration between teachers so the workloads can be shared. How could you implement this at your own school?