Teacher workload: how to stop it becoming overwhelming

One of the biggest issues our 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index raised was the impact of workload on the stress levels of many teachers and educational professionals. Here are some ways to manage your workload so it’s less stressful and overwhelming.

If you are finding your workload too much to bear you’re not alone. Our 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 32% of all education professionals are working more than 51 hours a week. Our Index also found that working long hours and feeling stressed appear to be closely linked, with the highest levels of stress coming from those who work more than 41 hours a week. People working under 41 hours a week were more likely to report not feeling stressed. In addition 72% say workload is the main reason for considering leaving their jobs.

A word cloud of terms used most frequently by respondents in our Wellbeing Index shows workload coming top with unnecessary paperwork and long hours second and third. So clearly there’s an issue here.

Meaningless data

In our research for the Teacher Wellbeing Index many teachers and education professionals commented that they were required to collect what seemed to them lots of meaningless data which appeared to have no obvious use for teaching and learning. For one secondary school teacher, Victoria, it all became so arduous she broke down over the increasing data requirements at her school. The solution for her was to leave and find a new position at a school where wellbeing was given priority and with much less emphasis on data collection.

Of course not everyone can move schools but government now accepts workload and excessive data collection is causing a crisis in recruitment and retention and The Department For Education has produced a paper advising how to reduce workload in Initial Teacher Training. The paper recognises workload is one of the most commonly cited reasons not only for teachers leaving the profession but that it can be a disincentive for potential new teachers to join.

The Teacher Workload Advisory Group set up by the DfE has also produced a paper Making Data Work. This too recognises the need to cut down on the heavy workload teachers face due to the so-called audit culture and the unnecessary amount of time spent on data collection. Change is coming.

Personal organisation

While education professionals wait for this new outlook to filter through to schools and colleges Victoria suggests teachers who feel overloaded employ time management skills and set themselves cut-off points. “Personal organisation and time management is crucial. Work a designated time on, say, lesson planning and don’t go over it as you lose time you can spend on something. Remember good is good enough. Don’t aim for perfection. Just do what will do the job,” she advises.

Victoria now runs a blog called Mrs. Humanities that helps teachers manage their workloads. Giving feedback in the classroom rather than spending hours marking is one of her many suggestions you may find helpful.

Taking the initiative

There are other ways you can try to manage your workload so it’s not overwhelming:-

  • Ask for help - if your SLT, mentor or department head isn’t aware that you’re feeling overloaded, they can’t help you. It’s a leader’s job to manage their team and ensure they can cope with the workload. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness it’s a sign of strength.
  • Prioritise your tasks. Rank in importance jobs for which there are serious consequences if you don’t do them and work down from there. Not everything is urgent; not everything has to be done today.
  • Accept that a “to do” list rarely gets completed. But lists are useful and better than juggling several tasks in your head. It also gives you the satisfaction of at least ticking some of them off. And it can provide evidence, if needed, of how much work you are trying to handle right now.
  • Focus on what you can control - the idea of so-called “executive stress” assumes that the higher up an organisation someone is, the more stress they have. However it’s lack of control over work tasks that causes the biggest stress; top-flight managers and bosses do have the luxury of controlling their working environment which most of us don’t. Just controlling the workflow that you can will alleviate the stress if only a little as it gives you a sense of control.

Learning to say no

Teaching professionals can find it very difficult to say no. You may fear letting someone else down, the school or your students. However we all need to say no sometimes and it’s much better to say no at the outset then say yes and follow this up later with a no. Which is something many of us do to avoid saying no directly.

Training yourself to be more direct in your communications with colleagues and leaders is ultimately much less stressful than saying no, regretting it and forever fretting afterwards as you try to find ways to getting out of something. If you find it hard to say no when asked try saying something such as, “I’ll have to check my calendar first, can I come back to you?” Then if you find it hard to say no face to face, drop them an email or text instead. See also our factsheet Knowing when to say no.

Feeling guilty

Many teachers feel guilty if they don’t perform at their peak and beyond the whole time. But often the person we most fear letting down is ourselves, even though we may justify those extra hours as something our school, colleagues and students need, often it’s a standard we set ourselves internally.

As well as learning to say no it’s important to try to let go of some of this and let go of guilt. It isn’t easy. Guilt is a tough emotion to deal with and some colleagues and leaders do emotionally blackmail teachers over extra tasks they want from them. “Think of your students!” or “Think of the school and how much pressure everyone is under.” However if you already have a full plate you may have to accept that you can’t take on any extra tasks.

Control

As individuals despite being overworked much of the time you do still have some control over your workload - even if it’s only which tasks to tackle first! By taking as much control as you can over your workflow it can help you to feel less stressed about it. Asking for help when you need it, letting others know when you’re overloaded is also a useful coping mechanism. The key to managing a workload that sometimes feels out of control is to get as much control over it as you can. And accept you can’t do everything - perhaps the toughest task.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, workload pressures, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.