Leadership and workload more important than behaviour for tackling teacher stress

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Supportive school leadership and reasonable workload demands are most closely related to relieving the stress that teachers often feel, research suggests.

However, collegiality and helpful behaviour policies are less likely to be linked to stress levels – although do play a role in job satisfaction and retention.

An analysis from FFT Education Datalab and the Teacher Development Trust (Sims & Jerrim, 2022) has sought to identify the factors that can lead to a stressed teaching workforce.

A total of 300 teachers were surveyed from across seven schools, with colleagues asked to report on four different aspects of their working environment – leadership, workload/admin duties, collegiality, and behaviour.

Their responses were captured using the Teachers’ Working Environment Scale (Sims, 2021) and teachers also reported their levels of stress in the workplace.

The findings show that collegiality and behaviour policies seem to have no clear relationship with teacher stress. However, the authors point to earlier research showing that these two factors do matter for job satisfaction and retention (Sims, 2021).

However, supportive school leadership and having a reasonable work/administrative load are associated with reduced teacher stress.

The study has been conducted by Dr Sam Sims, an associate research fellow at FFT, and John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics at UCL Institute of Education.

Stress test: The analysis shows each of the four factors under study and their relation to teacher stress. Each of the charts is calculated holding the other three aspects of working environment fixed. So, for example, teachers with supportive leaders (top left) tend to have lower stress, even compared to teachers who have the same levels of workload, collegiality, and behaviour support (source: Sims & Jerrim, 2022)

Crucially, the research defines what it means by supportive leadership: “Supportive leadership refers to the exercise of influence and direction setting in order to help teachers achieve their work goals.”

The researchers measured this using criterion including “school leaders can be relied upon for support if asked” and “school leaders provide opportunities for teachers to participate in decision-making”.

The analysis adds: “School leaders looking to reduce stress and increase job satisfaction for teachers should focus on developing these aspects of their practice.”

On workload, the analysis says that it is not necessarily just about working hours: “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 was measured using criteria such as “I am asked to do tasks which do not contribute to pupils’ education” and “data management gets in the way of teaching”.

The authors add: “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.”

The findings come after previous research from Dr Sims considered the impact of these four factors on staff satisfaction and retention. Based on responses from 1,230 teachers across 24 schools, his previous study found that “in schools with poor leadership and management, the probability of teachers feeling satisfied with their job drops to just 40%”.

Writing in a TDT blog earlier this year, Dr Sims added: “Two findings stand out. First, all four aspects of working environment are associated with improved teacher job satisfaction. Second, the quality of leadership and management clearly shows the strongest relationship with job satisfaction.” (See Sims, 2022)

And a report last year from the Teacher Development Trust – entitled A culture of improvement (Weston et al, 2021) – identified five key aspects of teachers' working conditions that “appear most closely associated with increased student attainment, sustainable school turnaround and successful retention of teachers in the profession”. These were:

  • Creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments.
  • Involving teachers in whole-school planning, decision-making and improvement.
  • Creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest.
  • Building a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning.
  • Facilitating classroom safety and behaviour, where disruption and bullying are very rare and teachers feel strongly supported by senior leaders in their efforts to maintain this classroom environment.

For more on this report, see Headteacher Update's article Creating the right conditions for professional learning (2021).

Further information & resources

  • Headteacher Update: CPD: Creating the right conditions for professional learning, February 2021: http://bit.ly/3dFj7Na
  • Sims: Why do some schools struggle to retain staff? Development and validation of the Teachers' Working Environment Scale (TWES), BERA Review of Education (9,3), October 2021: http://bit.ly/3EytS12
  • Sims: Benchmarking the 4 things that matter for teachers’ working environments, Teacher Development Trust, January 2022: http://bit.ly/3Al31TE
  • Sims & Jerrim: Understanding what makes some schools stressful places to work, FFT Education Datalab, November 2022: http://bit.ly/3Tzzf4k
  • Weston, Hindley & Cunningham: A culture of improvement: Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions, February 2021: https://tdtrust.org/coi/

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