Teaching can be a pretty stressful job, particularly if you are at the sharp end of the accountability system. Pressure to increase pupil progress, or provide evidence of increased progress, can lead to long working hours and mounting tension.
Yet teachers often tell us that some schools they have worked in, or even different departments within the same school, do a much better job of protecting them from stress.
So what exactly makes the difference? And what can we learn from the schools that do a good job?
Research suggests that the quality of a school’s working environment helps explain differences in job satisfaction and desire to quit among teachers. So, as part of our long-running project into teachers’ mental health and wellbeing supported by the Nuffield Foundation (https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/the-health-of-teachers-in-england-over-the-past-25-years) we teamed up with Teacher Development Trust to investigate whether school working environment might also explain differences in teacher stress.
A total of 300 teachers were surveyed from across seven volunteer schools. We asked each teacher to report on four different aspects of their working environment – leadership, workload/admin, collegiality, behaviour – captured using the Teachers’ Working Environment Scale (TWES). In addition, teachers reported their levels of stress in the workplace.
Figure 1 below shows our headline findings. The vertical axis shows teacher stress levels, with higher values indicating more stressed teachers. The horizontal axis shows the four different aspects of teachers’ working environment, where higher values indicate a better working environment. Rather than showing each of the underlying datapoints, we have simply shown the lines of best fit.
For the vertical axis, a value of 0 indicates average stress levels in our sample. A value of +0.5 indicates that a teacher is in the top third from stress levels in our sample and a value of -0.5 indicates that the teacher is in the bottom third. The values on the horizontal axis have the equivalent interpretation for each aspect of teachers’ working environments.
Figure 1. The link between four features of the school working environment and teachers’ stress levels.
So, what do we learn? First of all, collegiality and behaviour policy show no clear relationship with teacher stress. Previous research suggests that they matter for job satisfaction and retention. But, according to the data we have collected, they are not associated with teachers’ stress levels.
In contrast, supportive school leadership and having a reasonable work/admin load are associated with reduced teacher stress. The relationship in each panel of the figure is calculated holding the other three aspects of working environment fixed. So, for example, the top left panel of this chart is telling us that teachers with supportive leaders tend to have lower stress, even compared to teachers who otherwise have the same levels of workload, collegiality and behaviour policy in their school.
So we can be pretty confident that ‘supportive leadership’ and ‘workload/admin’ are related to teacher stress. But what do we learn from this about how to run a school? One way to get at this is to look more closely at what we mean by these terms.
Supportive Leadership refers to the exercise of influence and direction setting in order to help teachers achieve their work goals. We measured this using questionnaire items such as “school leaders can be relied upon for support if asked” and “school leaders provide opportunities for teachers to participate in decision making”. School leaders looking to reduce stress and increase job satisfaction for teachers should focus on developing these aspects of their practice.
Workload here refers not to the overall number hours worked by teachers but to whether they perceive the specific tasks that they are required to do as hindrances. This is measured using questionnaire items such as “I am asked to do tasks which do not contribute to pupils’ education” and “data management gets in the way of teaching”. School leaders looking to reduce stress and increase job satisfaction for teachers should hence focus on minimising requirements that take teachers away from what they do best – educating pupils.
Teachers’ Working Environments Survey
TDT are delighted to be partnering with Dr Sam Sims to offer all TDT network schools an exciting opportunity to be involved in an exciting national research project looking at staff satisfaction, wellbeing and retention.
Alongside our own unique TDT Diagnostic Review, network schools can now request exclusive access to a questionnaire carefully developed by researchers at UCL Institute of Education, in which teachers will be asked about five aspects of the working environment which research has shown to predict teacher job satisfaction and retention. Like our existing survey, teachers’ responses are anonymous and school leaders will be confidentially provided with the results.
The research is in its second phase so upon staff completing this (approximately 5 minutes) leaders will have both a detailed report of responses for their school plans and a scaled indication of how this compares to the schools involved in phase one of the research.
This second phase is open exclusively to schools who are working with TDT and will inform sector wide understanding of how factors of effective working environments function together, helping schools and organisations supporting them to plan approaches to continual school improvement through this lens.