Unhappy teacher: Bad apple or the tree?



When teachers become stressed out, who – or what – is to blame? The teachers themselves? Or the school environment in which they work?

These were the questions behind a longitudinal study of teacher stress and wellbeing, involving 679 high school teachers from Australia, Norway and in international schools worldwide. Lead author Dr Richard Burns, a research fellow at The Australian National University Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing, said when he and his colleagues began the study, they were struck by the contrasting views of teacher unions and schools.

“Senior school management attributed negative teacher wellbeing to characteristics of the individuals, whilst the unions attributed employees’ negative wellbeing to excessive work demands, lack of supportive leadership and participative decision making,” Dr Burns said.

However, Dr Burns found it wasn’t as simple as that. He and his colleagues sought to determine just how much workplace morale and individual teacher wellbeing could be attributed to either working conditions or the teachers themselves.

“Importantly, we took a multi-faceted view on wellbeing. We looked at teacher wellbeing both in terms of the positive and negative feelings they reported, but also considered their level of psychological functioning in terms of their purpose in life, relatedness with others, and their acceptance of self,” Dr Burns said.

“Contrary to many assumptions, teachers’ emotionality – neuroticism – was mostly unrelated to their wellbeing over the duration of the study. Positive teacher wellbeing was most strongly related to teachers’ own characteristics and attitudes.

“Not surprisingly, it seems that positive self-referency, that is, the beliefs and attitudes individuals hold about themselves, is the most important driver in one’s own wellbeing. Teachers who possessed positive attitudes about themselves were more likely to report positive wellbeing six months later.”

Dr Burns added a common assumption is that negative people view the workplace as negative. “But the results were clear. The perception of working conditions was mostly unrelated to the teacher’s personality characteristics or attitudes of self,” Dr Burns said. “These cross-national findings clearly show that improving organisational and employee wellbeing is the responsibility of both the employee and organisation.”