Workload, tipping points and sustainable work-life balance: The OH&S challenges for educators - Education Matters Magazine
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Workload, tipping points and sustainable work-life balance: The OH&S challenges for educators

Australia has a significant mental health issue, and many schools as workplaces are unfortunately part of the problem not the solution, writes Phil Riley.

The workload of Australian principals is rapidly approaching a tipping point, beyond which the job will become unsustainable. Many may feel they have already reached it. If principals’ work is becoming unsustainable then so is teachers’ work. The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey has pointed out some of the reasons why . But let’s start this discussion with some recent evidence, both good and bad, that gives some context to the issues.

• Mental health threats are an educators’ most common occupational risk.
• PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) calculated that the cost of not addressing mental health issues in Australian workplaces amounts to $10.9 billion in annually: two Gonski’s every year!
• As educators make up the largest professional workforce in the country they represent a significant proportion of the $10.9 billion.
• Safe Work Australia reported, “The number of compensation claims for mental disorders lodged due to work-related mental stress substantially underestimates the size of the problem.” The reason for this is because in many industries, probably including most education settings, putting in a claim risks career suicide. So sensible people don’t do it. They may be suffering but they are not stupid.
• PwC found workers compensation claims represent just over 1% of the $10.9 billion!
• So employers suggesting that 2-3% reductions in successful workers compensation claims against education employers are evidence that things are improving is misinformed. It is a distraction from the very real issues facing educators.
• Far more troubling evidence than the relatively static workers compensation claims comes from the Teachers Health Fund, the industry health insurer. In November, 2014, the CEO, Brad Joyce, reported “the need for mental health services from members almost doubled over the past five years.”

The evidence of problems is clear. Australia has a significant mental health issue, and many schools, as workplaces are unfortunately part of the problem not the solution. On all dimensions of health and wellbeing principals score significantly lower than the general population on all positive dimensions and significantly higher on all negative dimensions. While there is no data yet on Australian teachers’ scores on the same dimensions, similar studies conducted suggest that there is no reason to suggest they would score much differently from principals.

You would probably like some good news now. Well there is some. PwC found that every “dollar spent on effective workplace mental health actions may generate $2.30 in benefits the organisation”1. So addressing the issues is a no-brainer. Doing so will free up significant levels of funding that could go to schools for educational purposes: a win-win scenario. But what to do? The Australian Psychological Society has been working on this and released an important report in 2013.

The Psychologically Healthy Workplace has six basic conditions that have to be met. As you read through them see if you can judge how well your workplace setting measures up. If you see shortfalls, what might be done to address them successfully?

Supportive leadership

• Perceived organisational support. The key word here is “perceived”. When employees perceive they are supported positive benefit for all follows. If they don’t perceive it, there are two potential issues: a) There may not be adequate support, or b) There may not be adequate communication about the support that is being provided but not being perceived.
• Supervisory support is concrete and specific. It shows the employee that their work is noticed, and valued by the organisation leaders. Relational and technical support provide employees with the feeling of security that enables them to back their own judgement knowing they have a place to retreat to if they overstretch.
• Supportive leadership that is neither over-directive or laissez-faire. This is tricky in a school situation as all educators are all leaders of students, perhaps also teaching teams as well as followers in the organisation. So how they are treated is likely to be how they treat others. Everyone has a more senior person to report to, including the principal.
• Emotional intelligence. Made popular by Dan Goleman 20 years ago, this goes directly to reading others and “walking in their shoes”. When leaders are trying to understand both the impact of their leadership and “how the troops are travelling” benefit for all ensues.
• Empathy, relates to emotional intelligence. Leaders need both to really be effective. When they are employees are more able to roll with the punches of a demanding job such as teaching
• Roll-modelling, is what educators do all the time.
• Delegation. In psychologically health workplaces delegation is a structured way to help the organisation function, not just giving people you don’t like, jobs you would rather not do. In unhealthy work environments, delegation often comes with either criticism of the task, or lack of support/resources to complete the task successfully.
• Proactive management of at-risk staff (for teachers read at-risk students). Basically everyone is watching how you handle those difficult relationships: watching to see if the actors’ dignity remains and that decisions are based on careful judgements made in everyone’s best interests.

Employee engagement

• The extent to which you feel involved in your job, have a say in what should happen, and some control over what actually happens.
• Much of employee engagement rests on the alignment between personal and organisational views and values. Increasing accountability and prescription in education has produced a values tension for many veteran teachers who began their careers under very different value systems to now. The result has been increased attrition from teaching in the USA as veteran teachers disengage from the work.

Role clarity

• Understand work objectives, and their links to individual and organisational objectives.
• Clear guidance about expected roles and how these translate to actual behaviours associated with the job. For example, does everyone in your work setting know how the goals of the organisation translate into daily action, or are they supposed to work that out for themselves?

Learning, development and growth opportunities

• Access to appropriate professional development, with opportunities to expand knowledge, skills and abilities and apply competencies gained.

Appraisal and recognition

• Appropriate rewards for contribution to the workplace. This does not mean performance pay. Teaching is a collaborative exercise and performance pay tends to induce competition between employees for limited resources, rather than promote collaboration toward long-term organisational goals.
• Recognition of achievement of professional and personal milestones
• Quality of performance assessment and feedback. Australia is well known in the organisational literature for not providing good feedback to employees. Our culture of “the tall poppy” means we tend to avoid rather than point out obvious success, and feel uncomfortable pointing out obvious under performance, because we don’t like to be seen as “dobbers”. So for Australian managers the easiest thing to do is provide little or no feedback, making performance reviews more of a time-wasting exercise than true provocations toward growth and identifying real opportunities to support employee growth.

Work-life balance

• Acknowledgement of employee’s responsibilities and lives outside work.
• Provides help to manage these multiple demands.

Benefits of a psychologically healthy workplace

A psychologically healthy workplace fosters employee health and well-being while enhancing organisational performance, thereby benefiting both employees and the organisation.

Benefits to employees
• Increased job satisfaction;
• Higher morale;
• Better physical and mental health;
• Enhanced motivation; and,
• Improved ability to manage stress.

Benefits to the organisation
• Improved quality, performance and productivity;
• Reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover;
• Fewer accidents and injuries;
• Better able to attract and retain top-quality employees;
• Improved customer service and satisfaction; and,
• Lower healthcare costs.

What can individuals do?

School education will always be an intense job emotionally because education workers deal with parents’ most precious hopes and deepest fears, wrapped up in the futures of their children. No amount of resourcing will change that. So it is important to recognise that educators’ occupational risks are more likely psychological. In particular, the risk is burnout. The American Psychological Association has a comprehensive website that outlines the differences between stress and burnout. The main causes are work-related, but there are also lifestyle issues, and personality traits contribute too. You will note that many of the symptoms listed below are the opposite of the components of a psychologically healthy workplace.

Work-related causes of burnout

• Feeling like you have little or no control over your work;
• Lack of recognition or rewards for good work;
• Unclear or overly demanding job expectations;
• Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging; and,
• Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment.

Lifestyle causes of burnout

• Working too much, without enough time for relaxing and socializing;
• Being expected to be too many things to too many people;
• Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others;
• Not getting enough sleep; and,
• Lack of close, supportive relationships.

Personality traits can contribute to burnout

• Perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough;
• Pessimistic view of yourself and the world;
• The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others; and,
• High-achieving, Type A personality.

The signs and symptoms of burnout fall into three categories. They are a good checklist to use for yourself and your colleagues. It is important to remember that burnout is the number one occupational risk for educators and should not be seen as a failure if it happens. It is common. It is also good to remember that burnout is a gradual process. This signs are subtle at first, but get easier to recognise with time. Early detection means it is easier to deal with because the symptoms are less severe.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout

• Feeling tired and drained most of the time;
• Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot;
• Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches; and,
• Change in appetite or sleep habits.

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout

• Sense of failure and self-doubt;
• Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated;
• Detachment, feeling alone in the world;
• Loss of motivation;
• Increasingly cynical and negative outlook; and,
• Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout

• Withdrawing from responsibilities;
• Isolating yourself from others;
• Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done;
• Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope;
• Taking out your frustrations on others; and,
• Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early.

Burnout prevention tips

• Start the day with a relaxing ritual. Rather than jumping out of bed as soon as you wake up, spend at least 15 minutes meditating, writing in your journal, doing gentle stretches, or reading something that inspires you.
• Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. When you eat right, engage in regular physical activity, and get plenty of rest, you have the energy and resilience to deal with life’s hassles and demands.
• Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that you truly want to do.
• Take a daily break from technology. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your laptop, turn off your phone, and stop checking email.
• Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work.
• Learn how to manage stress. When you’re on the road to burnout, you may feel helpless. But you have a lot more control over stress than you may think. Learning how to manage stress can help you regain your balance.

If we do not change what we do from day to day we should not achieve different occupational health outcomes. This means changing work habits: (re)evaluating work practices, keeping the important ones, but letting go of the unimportant. “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” It is time for all educators to act individually and collectively to change work practices that contribute to burnout. By looking after their own health, they will also be looking after the profession. The children of Australia will be the beneficiaries.


Philip Riley, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership
Principal Researcher, Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey
Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, ACU

Phil Riley, a former school principal, spent 16 years in schools before moving the tertiary sector. He researches the overlapping space of psychology, education and leadership. Phil has produced more than 150 publications and peer reviewed conference presentations and been awarded over $6 million in research funding. In 2010 Phil was recognised by Monash University with an inaugural Monash Researcher Accelerator award, which funded the first two years of The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey. He has since won the Dean’s award for Excellence by an Early Career Researcher, and the award for Excellence in Innovation and External Collaboration, at Monash in 2011. He moved to ACU in 2014.



[2]PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia.

[3]Safe Work Australia

[4]Teachers Health Fund CEO Brad Joyce (Nov, 2014)


[6]Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.

[7]Noddings, N. (2007). When school reform goes wrong. New York: Teachers College Press.

[8] Henry, A. (2005). Leadership revelations – An Australian perspective: Reflections from outstanding leaders. North Ryde: CCH Australia



[11] Warren Buffet distilled the words of Samuel Johnson to come up with this quote.


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