A popular meme doing the rounds indicates the frustrations of a worker, whose boss communicates a great concern for wellbeing and state of his employees, who seem dejected and exhausted. “Great!” replies one employee “If you could hire extra staff to reduce our workload, pay us enough to keep up with inflating costs and give employees more opportunity to have their views heard that would be brilliant!” The boss turns noticeably grumpy and yells “Not like that - try yoga!”
This scene plays itself out in workplaces across the globe, quite possibly in nowhere more universally than public service occupations such as emergency services, health care and teaching, and not just in a farcical, metaphorical way. I am aware of many workplaces who have actually done this! I’m sure to some extent it was well meaning, but a one-off yoga class does not exactly make up for the stress that is created by a constantly overwhelming workload and a lack of real opportunity to contribute to the decision-making processes at play. In schools, with government education departments wanting to impose their will on everything from curriculum content to teaching methods (and pretty much everything in between) and principals wanting to carve their own place in history through delivering their (often blurred) “vision” for a school, the plebs who actually are in contact with students on a daily basis have very little say in the way they manage the important process of student learning. Whether it’s the stress from being overworked or the frustration at lacking influence in an institution that should be the sum of the community’s values (not one person’s “vision” of how it should be), or the myriad of other stressors that impact a school teacher’s professional life, a yoga session just ain’t gonna cut it!
In the current political and social climate, where wellbeing and mental health are taking on increased importance, particularly in educational institutions after the well documented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on both students and staff, unfortunately the messages of concern for educational staff emanating from government departments and individual schools are proving to be akin to the ‘green-washing’ that many companies engage in to position themselves to the public as environmentally friendly operations. These statements by organisations regarding their deep concern for the wellbeing of their workers are often only rhetoric. As a teacher I was often reassured how much our school cared for our wellbeing, and yet when it came to the crunch, the response was strangely similar to that in the meme. In an uncanny similarity we were even taught mindfulness at one point (which some people find helpful in managing stress and challenging workloads, but is no solution to chronic overloading of workers)! In short, this stated concern for the mental health and wellbeing for a school’s staff members is rarely supported with evidence of this concern. Admittedly, teachers in Australia are comparatively well remunerated. According to Forbes magazine, the great majority of school teachers (barring those in the first years of their careers) earn above Australia’s median wage. This is not in any way to suggest that the wages are commensurate with the duties and responsibilities they undertake as part of their role – anyone with even a cursory knowledge of teaching understands that the range of expectations is amongst the most extensive of any occupation. Even for those who are reasonably well remunerated, recent inflation, price hikes and interest rate increases eclipse even the most generous of expected wage rises. However, the financial side of this meme is not the most prominent or relevant to the teaching profession.
What has been stated verbatim for decades, probably having its roots back in the Kennett shake-up of schools and teacher employment back in the early 1990s, is that there is no longer adequate finance to ensure that all the jobs needing to be filled in schools are filled. This means bigger classes and more administrative duties as well as everyone needing to be relative experts in trauma-informed education, speech pathology principles, counselling, cultural sensitivity… (add endless list of services here). Add to this the ever-increasing need for administration and the navigation of bureaucratic procedures and this means the role of teaching is almost secondary to the additional administration and bureaucratic noodling that the lack of ability to employ the people necessary to adequately complete these jobs results in, and you have a recipe for disaster. To illustrate the extent of this issue, a University of Sydney study found that a thoroughly terrifying 91% of teachers felt administrative duties were impeding their ability to perform their core job. Take that in for a moment…91%!
The logical result of all this is that teachers are very much overworked, and as we have seen recently, this has manifested itself in a significant loss of people from the profession. Daphne Gomez, a former teacher now coaching “stressed out” teachers to take up new careers, wrote in Forbes magazine that 60% of teachers report that they experience high levels of stress. Personally, I’m surprised this isn’t higher (she must have sent out her survey on the holidays!). Meanwhile, enrolments in courses for initial teacher education are dropping alarmingly and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) quote a 7% annual attrition rate for school teachers, meaning via these statistics that in just over fourteen years, it may be possible that no current teacher is still employed in the role.
The horror stories no doubt contribute to a low uptake of initial teacher education training positions in universities. This is probably not news to anyone who has had even a passing glance at the media of late. However, what still seems to be being ignored is the mental health and wellbeing aspect. What is likely not surprising to anyone that has spent time as an employee in the school system is that stress and mental health related issues account for a large percentage of exits from the profession. In fact, a Monash University study indicated that of those leaving the profession 62% indicated workload, and its subsequent impact on health and wellbeing, as the main reason for their exit. This has also been reported as the major reason for absences whilst still employed - including “stress” leave, which are potentially just as disruptive. For many teachers, if they were able to jettison some of the many administrative tasks requiring completion on a daily basis, it may mean a more manageable workload that would reduce the oft-quoted necessity for unpaid overtime. However, though some small measures are taken with each new version of the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement for teachers, they are largely unfunded or unsustainable, meaning that they often end up having little to no impact on the workload of teachers, and in some cases, due to the additional paperwork involved, often add to this.
Teachers often bemoan the use of money that could be used to reduce class sizes or employ additional people in schools for administrative or compliance tasks, or additional assistance to help with the increasing numbers of students who need extra support to manage the academic, behavioural and social aspects of school, on consultants who bring the “next big thing” to education systems, only to add further to the workload of those on the front line. This only adds to workplace frustration and further reduces even the extensive capacity for patience that teachers traditionally demonstrate. This often results in the phenomenon of “mental health days” – days that teachers often take without being physically unwell but consider necessary to continue functioning in their role at a reasonable capacity. However, the issues don’t end there.
Taking leave can be equally as stressful as soldiering on. Firstly, the expectation that fully planned lessons are left for casual relief teachers (often unspoken, but a very real expectation) does not provide a break for the teacher. Add to this the concern (often well-founded) that the relief teacher will not deliver the lessons as provided, and the mystery of not knowing what to expect upon their return and there is little respite for the mentally drained teacher. Many teachers also feel considerable pressure from their “leaders” to not take leave. The fact that short absences (up to a month) are funded out of the local budget, and therefore add to the school’s expenses, is not often well received by those trying to balance the books. At somewhere between $350-400 per day, relief teachers do not come cheap. In the current climate, where replacements are often difficult to engage, this only increases the pressure on those in teaching roles to ‘solider on’. Parents may contribute to this also if a consistent relief teacher cannot be found, as having their son/daughter exposed to a revolving door of teachers hardly supports sustained and comfortable learning, and they may, in perfectly understandable circumstances, express concern which can add to the pressure felt by the teacher to return from leave.
The stressful nature of the work, the sheer magnitude of the array of tasks a teacher must perform, and the constant frustration of knowing that hopes for better future outcomes will inevitably be dashed by unsustainable promises can only lead to one, stress-laden outcome. Yoga might help…for a while…but this does not alter the fact that the mountain of tasks, the constant battles with red tape and the chronic need to spend many more hours than paid for has only one logical ending. Until there is systemic change to allow these issues to be addressed adequately, all the yoga in the world will not help. Anyway, where would they find the time?
AITSL (2023). Australian Teacher Workforce Data reveals changing landscape and opportunities for positive change (media release).
Gomez, D. (2022). Stress Is Pushing Many Teachers Out Of The Profession.
Henebery, B. (2022). Nationwide study reveals the top three reasons our teachers are leaving. In The Educator Australia.
McDonald, J. and Leggatt, J. (2023). Average Salary In Australia: A Guide, in Forbes Advisor.
University of Sydney (2018). Teachers need more support, less admin to deliver quality education.