Winter 2022

Elementary Educators at High Risk of Workplace Burnout

Introduction

At the height of school closures and emergency online teaching in the spring of 2021, Ontario elementary teachers and registered early childhood educators (RECEs) were posting in private Facebook groups that they were “burned out.” A study published in the autumn 2021 CAP Journal found that some elementary educators were working a mean of 19 and an average of 30 extra hours per week. Educators reported feeling exhausted, contributing further to principal and vice-principal workload (Schroeter, 2021). This is concerning given evidence linking heavy workload to mental health concerns, suggesting that people working more than 54 hours weekly are at “major risk” of dying from overwork due to associated chronic stress, reduced sleep, unhealthy eating, smoking, alcohol consumption, and minimal exercise (Frank Pega et al., 2021).

Although tempting to blame the increased workload and burnout on remote teaching and the COVID-19 pandemic, research has documented a rise in teacher stress and work intensification for more than three decades. The major finding of a 1985 study was that the most significant predictor of overall stress among teachers was “educator role overload,” a term that describes how educators are under constant pressure to fulfill expectations beyond their core teaching role but for which they have no time (Friesen & Williams, 1985). A 2014 Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) report determined that teachers work an extra 10 to 20 hours per week outside the work day, typically experience high work overload, high work-family conflict and have little workplace flexibility compared to other employees. The top stress for educators was their inability to devote sufficient time to their students due to increasing workplace demands. The report recommended greater workplace flexibility to enable teachers to deal with aging parents and young children, to attract young people to the profession, and to review technology’s impact on the educators (Froese-Germain, 2014). In June and October 2020, two CTF national surveys on the mental health of teachers found that educators across Canada had reached their “breaking point” – 72% were stressed (CTF, 2020).

To investigate the current extent of workplace burnout among elementary school teachers and school-based RECEs engaged in remote teaching, a research project based on the Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT-12) was developed. Burnout is a work-related state of mental exhaustion categorized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational syndrome. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or extreme fatigue, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, and mental distancing from one’s job or feelings of negativism and cynicism. The WHO describes burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Studies have shown that burnout has negative consequences for individuals, organizations, and society (World Health Organization, 2019). This paper reports on a July 2021 survey of 244 Ontario educators that found 59.83% were “at high risk” of burnout as measured by the BAT-12 Burnout Assessment Tool. 

Method

The BAT-12 assessment tool was posted online as part of a survey for elementary contract and occasional teachers and kindergarten RECEs who had worked in either elementary bricks-and-mortar schools and pivoted to remote teaching for 10 weeks in the spring of 2021 or had worked all year (2020-21) in a virtual elementary school (VES) or taught in the hybrid model. 

The BAT-12 consists of 12 multiple-choice questions. Educator responses were scored according to the instrument’s instructions and sorted into the BAT-12’s three levels of burnout: “at high risk,” “at some risk,” or “at no risk” of burnout (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020). The survey participants also answered questions about online teaching constraints, coping methods, and the source of their burnout. They were given an opportunity to add their own comments.

Data Collection and Demographic Information

The survey was posted in early July 2021 in the private Facebook groups of a half dozen Ontario teacher and kindergarten classroom RECEs. Two hundred and twenty-four (224) elementary teachers and RECEs who taught online in the spring of 2021 or taught all year in a virtual school or hybrid classroom completed the survey. Most of the educators in the sample were women (92.86%), 5.36% of the respondents were men and 1.79% chose not to disclose their gender. Among the 224 participants, 81.25% had full-time contracts, 3.13% had part-time contracts, and 15.63% were Occasional Teachers or Occasional RECEs. Furthermore, almost three quarters of the participants (70.54%) cared for their own children and/or aging parents.

The responses were relatively evenly distributed among early-career (33.48%), mid-career (36.61%), and late-career educators (29.91%), as were the grade assignments. 

Study Findings

1. Burnout Rate

This study found that almost two thirds (59.83%) or 134 of the 224 survey participants were “at high risk” of burnout. Another 52 teachers or one quarter of the sample (23.22%) were “at some risk” of burnout. Altogether almost 86% of the study participants were at some or high risk of workplace burnout. The remaining 38 teachers (16.95%) were “not at risk.” (See Table 1.)

It is noteworthy that a number of participants wrote very detailed, personal, work-related accounts of crying jags, breakdowns, relationship conflict, physical ailments, and financial hardships, some of which predated the pandemic. One French Immersion teacher in her late 20s with 5 to 9 years of experience wrote that burnout was pervasive among her colleagues: “There was not one educator that I worked with [in 2020-21] who did not experience many, if not all signs of burn out.”

2.  Potential Causes of Burnout

The survey participants were asked to explain the cause of their burnout. Two hundred and one (89.73%) complied. Many provided multiple reasons. Many comments were impassioned and highly personal. 

When the written responses were coded and analyzed, two major themes emerged. Slightly more than one third (90) of the survey participants (40.18%) blamed their burnout on dramatically increased after-hours and weekend work. Slightly more (89) than one third (39.73%) attributed it to worrying about their inability to meet students’ full academic and social-emotional needs due to Covid-19 safety protocols and the limitations of remote teaching. (See Table 2.) 

Four other noteworthy themes emerged from the qualitative data. Approximately one quarter of the study participants attributed their burnout to one or more of the following factors: 

  • too many added, changing, and/or unrealistic new duties,
  • disrespectful treatment and interference in the teaching process,
  • lack of training and resources to teach online or implement safety protocols, and,
  • being overwhelmed by the rapid pace and number of changes to teaching expectations on short notice. (See Table 2.)

Five of the 244 study participants (2.10%) wrote positive comments about online learning under specific conditions, raising the possibility that there is job dissatisfaction among the other 239 respondents. A virtual school kindergarten teacher in her 30’s with 10 to 14 years of experience reported that she enjoyed the experience. “I loved virtual teaching. I thrived, my students thrived, and the parents loved the hands-on involvement. I think that if parents are making an informed choice to commit to virtual school because it fits their family’s needs, then students can excel. If virtual learning is forced, it simply will not work for anyone.”

3.  Possible Risk Factors for Increased Probability of Workplace Burnout

Demographic information such as teaching assignment, experience, and taking care of one’s own children while teaching online was analyzed for risk factors. A risk factor is a correlate associated with an increased probability of an outcome, usually negative. Risk factors divide a population into higher and lower risk subgroups (Offord & Kraemer, 2000). Risk factors were determined by calculating the number of educators “at high risk” of burnout in each subgroup. The figures reported here represent seven subgroups, 50% or more of whose members were “at high risk.” Higher percentages don’t necessarily indicate stronger risk factors – merely a general tendency toward risk. 

The following risk factors were most frequently correlated with “at high risk” burnout scores:

  • Classroom teacher grades 1 to 8 (71.11% correlation)
  • Teaching a combined grades class (68.29%),
  • 10 to 19 years of teaching experience (66.67%),
  • Looking after 1 or more children aged 0 to 14 while working at home (59.81%), 
  • Less than 5 years teaching experience (59.26%),
  • Kindergarten teachers and kindergarten early childhood educators (53.66%), and,
  • Occasional Teachers (51.43%).

Conclusion

This study found that the emotional and mental health of many Ontario elementary educators is potentially compromised due to unmanaged “chronic workplace stress.” More than 80% of them were at “high” or “some” risk of burnout early in the summer of 2021 according to the BAT-12 burnout measures. Historical data suggests a long-term trend of deteriorating and unhealthy educator working conditions (Friesen & Williams, 1985; Froese-Germain, 2014; CTF, 2020). It is reasonable to extrapolate from the Ontario data that educators across Canada are facing similar workplace conditions. Previous research has demonstrated that educator working conditions affect student learning (Bascia, 2014). Reducing workload expectations by adopting protective labour legislation such as the European Union’s Working Time Directive is one solution to burnout. It bars employees from working more than 48 hours on average per week (Ro, 2021). Left unchecked, burnout could exacerbate the current teacher shortage by making the profession unattractive to young people, creating further hiring challenges, and placing additional stress on principals and teachers (Duxbury & Higgins, 2013). 

References
Bascia, N. (2014). Optimal conditions: Productive teacher union-governmental relations lead to high quality education for young people. Worlds of Education, Issue #43. https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21065:optimal-conditions
Canadian Teachers’ Federation (2020). Pandemic Research Report: Teacher Mental Health Check-in Survey, November 26. https://vox.ctf-fce.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Doc-13-1-Pandemic-Research-Report-Teacher-Mental-Health-Check-in-Survey.pdf
Duxbury, L. & Higgins, C. (2013). The 2011/12 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers. Alberta Teachers’ Association. www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ATA/Publications/Research/COOR-94%20National%20Study%20on%20Balancing%20Work%20-Duxbury.pdf
Friesen, D. & Williams, M-J. (1985). Organizational Stress among Teachers. Canadian Journal of Education (10), 1, 13-34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1494827?origin=JSTOR-pdf
Froese-Germain, B. (2014). Work-Life Balance and the Canadian Teaching Profession. Canadian Teachers’ Federation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED546884.pdf
Offord, D.R. & Kraemer, H.C. (2000). Risk factors and prevention. Evidence-Based Mental Health (3), 70-71, https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/3/3/70
Pega, F., et al. (2021). Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to long working hours for 194 counties, 2006 to 2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury. Environment International, 154, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595
Ro, C. (2021). How overwork is literally killing us. BBC Worklife, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190722-welcome-to-bbc-worklife
Schaufeli, W.B., De Witte, H., & Desart, S. (2020). User Manual: Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT) – Version 2.0. KU Leuven, Belgium: Internal report. Retrieved online from https://burnoutassessmenttool.be/
Schroeter, E. (2021). Emergency Remote Teaching Increases Elementary Teacher Workload by 50%. CAP Journal, Fall 2021. Ottawa: The Canadian Association of Principals. Retrieved online from https://cdnprincipals.com/the-impact-of-emergency-remote-teaching/
World Health Organization (2019). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved online from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

AUTHOR BIO:
Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, ETFO, is a former newspaper reporter and retired elementary school teacher with 30 years of experience. His education research has been published in the CAP Journal, the Ontario Mathematics Gazette, Education Canada Magazine and Canadian Teacher Magazine. He was the Grade 1 Lead Writer for the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum Resource Project (2020-21).

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