The state of educator wellbeing in Australia
White Paper by Dr Justin Coulson
When was the last time you woke up truly invigorated and excited at the thought of going to work? Many educators tell me that as much as they love – really love – what teaching can be, they often feel that they are counting down the days until the holidays. They are looking forward to the weekend, even though they know they’ll spend most of it planning and marking? Increasing numbers are even wondering how they’ll find the strength to stay in this profession until retirement – if teaching even exists in its current shape by then.
The data tell a strong story: a staggering 58% of teachers plan on leaving the profession within the next decade. And with the high dropout rate of students in teaching courses and the poor retention of early career teachers, it’s likely that your school will struggle to replace those teachers. But what if your school could flip the script?
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Presently, most teachers – whether in private, public, religious, independent, and alternative education – report having an unmanageable workload, adverse effects on physical and mental health, and high rates of stress and burnout because of the nature of their jobs. These factors affect most teachers in almost every school (although early career teachers in rural primary schools are the most impacted).
But burnout is not a guaranteed by-product of being in education. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Data describes how wellbeing initiatives implemented in your school can boost job satisfaction, decrease stress and burnout, and improve the physical and mental health of the staff at your school. This not only decreases the likelihood of staff turnover, but it also has long-term benefits to educator wellbeing, increases student achievement, and contributes to a positive school environment. And wellbeing initiatives may be especially important in schools where engaging in such activities feels like a luxury you can’t afford. It has been reported that every $1 invested in wellbeing initiatives can save $5.81 in the long term by reducing the rate of staff turnover and absenteeism, as well as improving the quality of staff output.
Where do we start?
In order to target areas for priority action, the first step is to understand the state of wellbeing in your workplace. The following are some of the most common factors that contribute to educators’ decisions to leave the profession:
Australian teachers work longer hours than the OECD average, and the majority find their workload unmanageable. Even part-time teachers are struggling, with some feeling unable to commit to full-time work as they are already doing much more than their contracted hours. High workloads limit the time available to engage in vital self-care practices and increase the risk of burnout.
Issues related to physical and mental health
Many teachers find that their career has negative impacts on their physical and mental health. Poor health results in more sick days being taken and lowered productivity due to working at a reduced capacity.
Stress and burnout
More than half of Australian teachers rate their job as very or extremely stressful. Perceived stress is a strong predictor of work-related burnout, which occurs when long- term involvement in a demanding workplace results in a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. The effects of a stressful work environment can be reduced when there is high subjective wellbeing and when emotional regulation skills are strengthened.
Perceptions by the public
Many teachers describe feeling unappreciated, disrespected, and not trusted in their work. While most people report that teachers are trustworthy and valuable, there is a small subset of parents who engage with teachers in non-collaborative ways. Unfortunately, this occasionally cumulates in threats of physical violence, verbal aggression, and intimidation.
Teachers who aren’t satisfied with their jobs are up to nine times more likely to leave the profession. Many educators put up with the high workloads, excessive administration and reporting requirements, and high stress inherent in their profession due to their love of teaching. However, teacher shortages are putting this at risk, as many educators find themselves teaching in classrooms with complex class composition without additional support, or teaching subject matter that they don’t feel confident in teaching.
Meeting needs of teachers makes life better
One particularly influential wellbeing framework is Self-Determination Theory. This theory describes the three basic psychological needs all humans have: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. These needs mediate the impact of environmental factors (such as workplace stress and workload) on work performance and satisfaction. This framework can be embedded into your workplace by evaluating any policy or practice regarding its impact on:
- Competence: are teachers fit for the work they’re asked to do? Are there structures in place to provide support for them to complete their tasks competently? Are they capable?
- Autonomy: will educators experience freedom to experiment and not feel pressured to behave only as directed?
- Connection: are teachers likely to feel respected and a sense of belonging as a result of this policy? Do they feel like they matter, connect, and belong in the school community? Do they want to be involved?
In addition there is also evidence for mindfulness and positive psychology-based interventions. The content of these interventions typically involves:
- Attention to body, attention to thought, and cultivation of self-compassion
- Breathing practices, relaxation practices, and yoga practices
- Purposely paying attention to the present moment without judgement
- Writing daily reflections
And then there’s the “personal responsibility” element of wellbeing that no one really wants to talk about, but that matters profoundly.
- How are staff spending their time outside work?
- Are they experiencing a level of balance?
- Have they taken personal action to eat well, reduce drinking, sleep and exercise, and so forth?
- Are their personal relationships sustaining and supportive?
- Do they have meaningful activities and commitments outside of work?
Improving educator wellbeing can feel like an impossible task, particularly if your school has already reached crisis levels of burnout and is suffering from teacher shortages. However, with considered implementation of proven interventions, job satisfaction can increase while work-related stress and burnout levels decrease. Not only does this boost the wellbeing of the educators and staff at your school, it also contributes to protecting your school from the impact of the national teacher shortage. Staff want to be employed at your school! Additionally, by frequently re-examining the state of wellbeing in your school, you can identify new areas of concern before they become entrenched patterns. The poor state of the teaching workforce is a societal issue. But with considered implementation of proven interventions, it doesn’t have to be an issue within your school. For further information on how to improve wellbeing in your workplace, you may wish to read the full White Paper by Dr Justin Coulson on The State of Educator Wellbeing in Australia.
Invested in educator wellbeing?
Subscribe for the white paper here.