Is teacher workload a matter of perception?

Teachers face two types of demand that affect how they perceive their workload, says Ben White – which is why senior leaders must keep an eye on how staff feel about significant job changes

When Justine Greening told a recent Department for Education event that excessive workload is mainly a product of inefficient working practices, no one seemed to disagree.

The ongoing conversation around workload seems to focus primarily upon this truism. But, while there is clearly merit in this approach, research suggests that the equation is more complicated.

The demands/resources model is popular because of its simplicity and because it can fairly consistently predict a number of relationships:

•    Decreased resources > increased levels of burnout

•    Increased resources > increased levels of engagement

•    Increased demands > increased levels of burnout

One relationship that is not clear using this simple model is how demands affect engagement. In some research, increased demands lead to lower engagement; in others, it’s the opposite.

Crawford et al (2010) differentiate between two types of demand: challenge demands, which “have the potential to promote mastery, personal growth or future gains”; and hindrance demands, which “have the potential to thwart personal growth, learning and goal attainment”.

Within reason, teachers are likely to respond positively to challenge demands.

For example: this year I have been asked to take on teaching A-level psychology.

This has taken up considerable time as I first had to read, plan, consult experts (and watch documentaries). However, while objectively I’m working more than at the same time last year, I feel more engaged about my job.

On the other hand, teachers are likely to respond badly to “hindrance” demands. As these demands increase, not only am I likely to feel less engaged in my job, but I’m more likely to report symptoms of burnout.

To give a concrete example: at times I am asked to predict pupil results. I don’t feel I can, and worry the label students are given could hold back their progress. Being a bit of a research junkie, I did explore the area and found a report that suggests that the best predictions are only about 60 per cent accurate, even immediately before an exam. However, needs must and this week I completed a set of predicted results, giving one student a B3.

She came to see me, demoralised by my prediction: in her world where teachers possess a magical knowledge of objective grades and future performance, this little letter was a big deal.

High demands with high resources are generally sustainable

So while “reporting” is not very significant from a simple workload perspective – it took me 20 minutes to enter, check and upload my “interim” reports – it could have a disproportionate effect on my engagement and susceptibility to burnout because I see the demand as at best futile, at worst

As a classroom teacher, I could be wrong. Or, more accurately, unaware that a demand that appears a barrier to successful teaching is actually crucial for the wider success of the school as a whole.

This is why senior leaders must find ways to monitor how staff perceive significant job demands. If they see a specific demand to be a hindrance, they need to reflect because either:

1 It actually is – in which case it can be removed (the Ofsted memo and marking review point out numerous examples of these sorts of demands); or

2 It actually isn’t – in which case there is probably a communication or training issue.

The research concludes that workload is not inherently bad – but it is important to monitor the demands made of and resources made available to teachers. In short:

•    High demands matched with high resources are generally sustainable.

•    High demands with low resources are not. Neither is a situation in which demands are generally deemed to be hindrances rather than challenges.

It seems important to create a “high resource” working environment and to protect staff from demands that appear either nonsensical, impossible, ill-defined or likely to prove a hindrance to the core purposes of the school.


Ben White is a psychology and sociology teacher, director of research for Ashford Teaching Alliance and a member of CEBE research engagement steering committee

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.