Teaching: truly one of the most stressful jobs!
Teachers may often claim that they have one of the most stressful jobs. Yet this is not just another baseless complaint- it is actually grounded in academic research. Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) found that most studies demonstrate that teaching is one of the most high stress social professions, as it necessitates close relationships with other people and quick decision-making skills that may have serious repercussions on those involved, whether economic, social or other.
In addition, when compared to other professions, school teachers show higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism, which are significant predictors of job burnout (cited in Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli, 2006). In the same study conducted in Finland by Hakanen, Bakker & Schaufeli (2006), results showed that teachers had the highest level of burnout compared to workers in all other human services and white collar jobs. These results are not limited to Finland. In a comparative study by Pithers, & Soden (1998), results showed that a third of teachers in Great Britain, Holland, Scandinavia, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and other countries report that teaching causes stress or excessive stress.
Ask any teacher what stresses them in their job and you will no doubt get a huge variety of answers. Stresses vary day-to-day depending on interactions with parents and administration, student behaviours, changing job conditions, availability of resources, relationships with colleagues, etc. In a review of literature, Papastylianou & Polychronopoulos (2009) identified the following factors as causes of teacher stress:
This laundry list of factors can be a lot to digest. Most likely, one cannot grasp the whole of it by simply reading the words. I have chosen to explore two of the reasons identified by the academic scholarship that I have experienced, in order to provide a more meaningful understanding of these stressors.
It is important to note that all workers in the field of people-work face important stresses. Hochschild (2003) famously characterized these stresses as “emotional labor”, as employees are required to self-regulate their emotions in order to properly do their work. This may lead to workers employing emotionally draining strategies, such as “surface acting”, meaning that they will display the expected or appropriate emotion, while actually feeling something else on the inside. Others may resort to “deep acting”, wherein employees will both display the appropriate emotion, while trying to mimic that emotion on the inside.
A better strategy would be to aim for “emotional consonance”- in other words, truly feeling the emotion that is portrayed. However, many training programs and many workplaces encourage emotional detachment (as cited in Coates & Howe, 2015), making emotional consonance an unpopular and infrequently used strategy. I experienced this first hand before I took a leave of absence from work due to burnout. Friends, family and colleagues would often advise me to “leave work at work” and not to carry that stress home with me. However, I very strongly believed (and still do) in creating and maintaining strong relationships with my students. How could I have those relationships and invest myself emotionally in my work, yet disconnect when the dismissal bell rang?
I felt pressure to remain professional, and emotionally detached, all while being encouraged to maintain close bonds with my students. Through the lens of Hochschild’s work, I can see that I was encouraged to be “surface acting”- the most damaging approach to emotional labour, as it is so emotionally demanding.
Stoeber & Rennert (2008) describe perfectionism as: “a personality style characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.” (p. 38). The value placed on others’ evaluations leads to increased pressure to perform, and meet both one’s own high standards, as well as others’ perceived high standards.
I did not know I was a perfectionist until I suffered from burnout. It was much later that I learned that it can be very hard for perfectionists to change their ways, because it leads to so many benefits. For example, it was my striving for excessively high standards that pushed me to succeed academically, be recognized with awards when I was in the army, run so many marathons, and so on. How could this drive be a bad thing?
Over time, I saw that my high standards and drive for perfection were both
preventing me from enjoying my success (I always wanted something bigger and better) and leading me down a road of exhaustion and despair. In fact, perfectionism has thus long been linked to high levels of stress and job burnout (Stoeber & Rennert (2008). Flett, Hewitt, & Hallett, (1995) authored one of the few studies exploring the link between perfectionism and job stress in teachers. As was predicted, results of their study demonstrated that teachers who indicated a higher level of perfectionism (compared to teachers with low levels of perfectionism) experienced higher stress.
This is a lot to think about, I know. While emotionally heavy, it is essential that teachers regularly take a moment to evaluate how they are feeling emotionally and professionally. We are in a helping profession, and so often, we place the needs of others first, both because our job demands it, and because it's in our nature. Just remember,
you can't pour from an empty cup.
Coates, D. D., & Howe, D. (2015). The design and development of staff wellbeing initiatives: staff stressors, burnout and
emotional exhaustion at children and young people’s mental health in Australia. Administration and Policy in Mental
Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(6), 655-663.
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Hallett, C. J. (1995). Perfectionism and job stress in teachers. Canadian Journal of School
Geving, A. M. (2007). Identifying the types of student and teacher behaviours associated with teacher stress. Teaching and
Teacher Education, 23(5), 624-640.
Hakanen, J. J., Bakker, A. B., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2006). Burnout and work engagement among teachers. Journal of school
psychology, 43(6), 495-513.
Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.
Papastylianou, A., Kaila, M., & Polychronopoulos, M. (2009). Teachers’ burnout, depression, role ambiguity and conflict. Social
Psychology of Education, 12(3), 295-314.
Pithers, R. T., & Soden, R. (1998). Scottish and Australian teacher stress and strain: a comparative study. British Journal of
Educational Psychology,68(2), 269-279.
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and
burnout. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 21(1), 37-53.
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