Occupational Health in Education: A Qualitative Study of Workplace Stress and Coping Strategies among Secondary School Teachers.
The aim of this project is to study the levels of workplace stress in secondary school teachers, investigate the most common sources of teacher stress and identify the most effective coping strategies used to deal with such situations.
Psychologists for many years have researched stress within the teaching profession, particularly recognising it as a stressful career that may lead to burnout (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe, 1978; Johnson et al., 2005; Kieschke & Scharschmidt, 2008; Fitzgerald, 2008). Similarly, poor coping strategies can cause daily stress to become distress (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005). Therefore, research suggests that coping strategies play a vital role in reducing workplace stressors.
Stress is considered to be a subjective experience, so a qualitative method provides an understanding of individuals’ encounters (Bryman, 2004; Gubrium & Holstein, 1997). Semi-structured interviews will be carried out with secondary school teachers. Interviews will include questions about experiences of workplace stress, responses to stressors and methods for coping with stress.
Identifying the types of stressors teachers experience and the ways in which they cope or are unable to cope, provides an insight the education sector can use to develop strategies for dealing with workplace stress.
Well-being within the workplace is an area that has been vastly researched in the UK and around the world over the years. Occupational stress has been found to be one of the main issues that produces major concerns with not only the employees but also the employers as well. It produces outcomes that can be physical (high blood pressure, heart problems), mental (anxiety, depression), behavioural (absenteeism) and cognitive (lack of attention and memory). In particular, workplace stress among teachers is currently one of the most stressful occupations in Britain. This area of teacher stress is relevant to research in the area of work and well-being in my MSc, because an increase in the level of workplace stress can have negative effects on an individual’s health and wellbeing including their everyday functions (Kinman, 1998).
Stress within the workplace is an area that has been a great issue within the teaching profession (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005). Research in teacher stress began to form in the 1970’s, as there was a significant increase stress among teachers at this time (Kyriacou & Sutcliffe, 1978). A UK survey found that on average, one-third of teachers report that their occupation is of a stressful or an extremely stressful nature (Roth, 1993). A key finding from much of the literature in this area have found that sources of stress involve; work overload, time pressure, poorly behaved students, relationships with other teachers, dealing with new changes and innovation, challenges with the management of the school and bad working conditions (Brown et al., 2002; Chan et al., 2010). Furthermore, many studies in Australia have also found that stress among teachers is a common concern (Bourke & Smith, 1994; Pithers & Fogarty, 1995).
Stress is the result of a dynamic interaction between the individual and the environment. Workplace stress can be described by the following definition; “when the perceived demands outweigh the perceived capability, skills and resources of the worker” (Cox & MacKay, 1976). This definition derives from the Transactional model of stress. The “perceived demands” would be what the teacher interprets as the causes of their stress. Research into the main causes of workplace stress among teachers has found an abundant number of consistent themes including; lack of motivation from students, poorly behaved students, lack of time, work overload and a lack of a supportive environment.
Research has suggested that workplace stress among teachers is categorised into four domains of stress (McCormack & Barnett, 2011). The first is the personal domain, which states that stress among teachers is due to how capable the teachers perceive themselves at work. This domain of stress is also known as professional distress as it is related to an absence of professional development. Research has highlighted that stress among teachers can be due to professional capability (Forlin, 2001).
The second is the student domain, which states that stress among teachers is due to the poor behaviour of the student/s. Student domain stressors have been greatly associated with teacher stress, the most common are the issues that occur in teaching student that are disruptive and the overall discipline of the class. Therefore, this provides a major strain on the teachers, resulting in teacher burnout (Hakanen et al., 2006; Kokkinos, 2007). Moreover, research on Greek teachers found that teacher stress is highly associated with the interaction between students and other teachers and the overall discipline of the class (Antoniou et al., 2006).
The third is the school domain, which states that stress among teachers is due to an absence of a supportive school environment. Research has found that high levels of teacher stress are associated with tedious administrative duties that the teachers had to do (Kinman, 1998). Additionally, research has also found that a large amount of paperwork was one of the most common stressors, alongside the application of new educational initiatives and restraints on time (Moriarty et al., 2001).
The fourth and final domain is the external domain, which states that stress among teachers is due to factors outside the school systems such as the head office and educational policies made by the government (McCormack & Barnett, 2011). Research has shown that external factors including changes in education, government policies and the system of education itself are effecting the levels of stress among teachers. Moreover, research suggests that changes in education were causing significant levels of stress and that the main factor that causes stress were the ever changing government policies (Kyriacou & Chien, 2004).
By reflecting on the issues of stress within the workplace with research on workplace stress among teachers is an area that if of interest to investigate. Studies on workplace stress among teachers in Ireland have also suggested that teaching is an occupation which has significant levels of stress (Wynne et al., 1991; Darmody & Smyth, 2011; Kerr et al., 2011). Furthermore, it has been reported that teachers have an increased amount of job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and physiological illness (Kyriacou, 1987). Stress can result in a teacher being unable to complete tasks to their full potential such as: reduced quality of their teaching, therefore negatively impacting the students’ learning.
Teachers are required to perform many tasks in their workplace, this can include being a knowledge provider, role model, invigilator, resource and curriculum developer and planner. Due to these many tasks teachers have to perform, stress among teachers will be a continuing occurrence within the occupation. This project aims to investigate the most common sources of teacher stress and identify the most effective coping strategies used to deal with such situations. An awareness of the most common stressors among teachers compared to stressors they experience on an individual basis should provide this project with research to identify specific stressors that are commonly amongst teachers. An awareness of the most effective coping strategies used to deal with these stressors should provide this project with research that can be generalizable to most teachers within the education sector. Therefore, the main research questions for this project are:
1) What are the main causes of stress in secondary school teachers?
2) What coping strategies are used in order to cope with the identified stressors?
These research questions can provide health educators an insight into workplace stress among teachers.
This project will be of a qualitative nature. This is because qualitative research is found less in terms of workplace stress among teachers and the coping strategies the utilise (Lazarus, 2006). Qualitative research provides “an insight into the perceptions of the participants and their understanding, interpretation and experience of the world around them” (Bell, 2014; Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Foddy, 1994; Freebody, 2003; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Sturmfels, 2009). A qualitative approach tries to make sense of “the meaning of events and interactions to ordinary individuals in particular situations” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Strumfels, 2009).
The research focusses on the meaning and understanding of workplace stress among teachers and their responses and strategies used to cope. This will be achieved by recording the perspectives of current secondary school teachers at one specific school in Hertfordshire, this ensures that the research is relevant to the sample and can be explored in depth. A smaller sample size will be used in this project, this is because large sample sizes can pose difficulties in exploring in-depth perceptions, thus leading to an artificial understanding (Smith, 2003). Using a qualitative method will provide rich descriptions of teacher stress and coping strategies so that the research question of this project can be fully answered.
Qualitative research is used to explore the individuals’ interpretations to a social challenge (Creswell, 2007). In this project, semi-structured interviews will be carried out with secondary school teachers to explore what teachers perceive as a main source of workplace stress and what strategies are used for coping with the stressors. The interview schedule will include open ended questions about experiences of workplace stress, responses to stressors and methods for coping with stress. This will provide the opportunity to ask further in-depth follow up questions if necessary and encourage a free narrative and in-depth responses (Smith, 2003). Questions for the interview guide are yet to be completed, however some of the questions that will be presented to the participants will be along the lines of (Recruiting Resources: How to Recruit and Hire Better, 2018):
1) What’s the most stressful situation you’ve faced at work so far? How did you handle it?
2) How do you prevent a situation from getting too stressful to manage?
3) Can you describe a time when your stress resulted in making errors at work?
Participants will be recruited by contacting the school and emailing teachers to arrange a time to conduct the interview. The interviews will be conducted on the school premises in a naturalistic relaxed setting. Participation will be voluntary and they will be given information about the study and informed consent will be given prior to each interview. Each interview will last approximately sixty minutes (Kvale, 1996). This will give participants enough time to elaborate on the questions asked and discuss matters of their choice. The interview will be recorded and then followed by a debriefing. The data collected will be later transcribed to provide themes and ideas to identify the existing stressors and coping strategies.
For this project, a qualitative methodology appropriately addresses the research questions. This is because stress is considered to be a subjective experience, so a qualitative method provides an understanding of individuals’ encounters (Bryman, 2004; Gubrium & Holstein, 1997). A qualitative method will provide the research an explanation for why and how teachers experience stress in their workplace. Furthermore, it will provide an insight into effective coping strategies that can be used and applied worldwide to help those who are unaware of how to cope with such situations.
A qualitative method provides flexibility in the study design as although there will be a set of questions, the response gained from a participant can affect what questions can be asked next which will provide even more detailed data that can be used to construct themes. Another advantage of using a qualitative method in this project is that the use of open ended questions will provide the participants with the opportunity to respond in their own words, instead of making them choose a response that has already been made. Moreover, open ended questions allow the participant to provide meaningful and culturally applicable responses, the responses will be unanticipated by the investigator and the responses will be rich and explanatory in nature (Davies & Hughes, 2014).
Although a qualitative method was most preferred for this project, limitations of the methodology must be taken into account when analysing data. One limitation may be due to the fact that some participants may not see the point in doing the research as it has no value to them. Therefore, providing inaccurate or false information. Participants may also provide information that they think the investigator wants to hear.
An area that could be considered for future research would be to include more schools into the sample, this could have provided a broader range of data from different educational institutions that would make the data more generalizable to the education sector. Furthermore, examining whether gender, age and the length of experience an individual had teaching may provide significant contributions to identifying how workplace stress among teachers may vary due to these factors.
Ethical issues involved with this project have been considered and these are as follows:
1) Information for the participants- Information about the project will be provided to participants to explain how data will be used and kept confidential. An informed consent sheet will be given to the participants on the day of the interview.
2) Participant consent- Participants will have the opportunity to provide informed consent prior to being interviewed. Written consent will be provided and collected from participants. Participants will also be reminded of the purpose of the research and why they have been selected.
3) Right to withdraw- Participants can withdraw from the research at any stage of the research process until the data is documented in the project. The participants will be reassured that the research is only for an MSc therefore only for educational purposes.