You don’t need a pile of research studies to make an educated assumption that healthy employees who feel positive about their jobs will do more effective, productive work. (But the studies exist and some are cited in the pages to come.) And it shouldn’t take much convincing that an enthusiastic and emotionally healthy teacher will have a better impact on students than one that is stressed, exhausted, and/or overwhelmed. As a parent, you can bet I wanted the first teacher for my kids, not the second! Yet when competing priorities jostle for limited resources, staff well-being can get pushed so far to the back that it drops right out of sight.
We have a tendency to see well-being as solely a personal responsibility. If employees are struggling, they should go to the gym, get better organized, become more resilient or adaptable. But several of our authors dispute this assumption. Self-care, while important, only goes so far. Instead, our authors argue that occupational mental health, like physical health and safety, is a shared responsibility.
I’d love to think that all employers would try to protect their employees from toxic levels of occupational stress simply because they care about their staff. But let’s be realistic: staff well-being can too often be shrugged off as a “frill” or a strictly personal problem. That’s why we have to recognize that chronically overstressed educators come with a cost to the system. Sick days, stress leave, even leaving the profession are just the most visible impacts of employees who are unwell. An investment in employee well-being is an investment that pays off in reduced HR costs, increased performance, and ultimately increased student achievement.
All human service professions entail a certain amount of stress. But for those who are passionate about their calling, the work should also be deeply rewarding. That’s what Astrid Kendrick calls the “heartwork” of teaching. It’s what leads teachers and school leaders to go above and beyond, to bring the very best they have to their students (or staff), year after year. When that passion is crushed by relentless stress, she calls the resulting burnout “occupational heartbreak.” The articles in this special issue show some of the ways we can protect our educators’ heartwork, so they can be the committed, energetic, enthusiastic professionals our children need and deserve.
The EdCan Network has recently launched “Well at Work,” a research and public awareness campaign that calls on education leaders to make teacher and staff well-being a top priority. Check out Network Voices to find out more about this exciting initiative.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, December 2019