The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Julia Watson

The big switch off

Julia Watson looks at why some people just don’t know when to stop and what to do about it. 

We all know people who are unable to switch off from work. Any night out with a group of teachers (once they’ve rearranged the seating wherever they are) will include a couple of people talking about work. 

When I was in the classroom every day, I used to dream about the kind of job that started at 9 and ended at 5. Talking to friends outside education (also known as ‘the real world), I recognise this as absolute nonsense. The sort of office-based job I envisaged (which would frankly bore me to tears and would in no way allow me to own a home) just does not exist. 

Working hours

A survey by The Office for National Statistics suggests that workers in the UK work the third longest hours in the EU, averaging 42.7 hours a week. Their study from February 2018 suggests that over 5.3 million workers in the UK work on average 7.7 hours of unpaid work per week.

The Education Support Partnership recently produced their health summary with research by YouGov. This painted a bleak picture of the mental and physical health of educational professionals in the UK. 

  • 75% of educational professionals faced physical and mental health issues in the last two years because of work. 
  • 53% of educational professionals have considered leaving the sector due to health pressures. 
  • 75% attributed volume of work and seeking a better work life balance as a reason for leaving the profession.
  • 29% said that their job made them feel stressed most or all of the time in the past few weeks, compared to 18% of the overall workforce. 
  • 31% said they regularly worked over 51 hours a week, with two thirds of senior leaders working over 51+ hours a week. 

The Employee Outlook Spring 2017 (CIPD) states:

‘When looking at the public sector as a whole, employees in the UK are significantly more likely than educational professionals to feel that they achieve the right balance between home and work lives. Public Sector workers achieve an overall positive score of +32 (when subtracting the proportion who disagree form the proportion who agree they achieve the right balance), while for educational professionals, the figure is -10.’ 

A cultural shift

The change in education is a cultural one over time and to me, it is obvious that this has impacted negatively on the wellbeing of education professionals. 

Testing has become more important. There are more hoops to jump through, more things that must be done. The timetable has narrowed, with less time for creativity. With this, we have a slightly different character of those being attracted into teaching. 

Teaching has become more attractive to those prone to over-control, perfectionism and even OCD type tendencies. I’ve seen a significant rise in my clinical practice of those in education suffering with OCD: negative thoughts, over-ordering their classrooms, finding pages stuck ‘incorrectly’ in books highly distressing. 

These tendencies add hours to working time and pressure to the working day. Keeping your classroom looking perfect, having immaculate labels for everything and displaying coloured pencils in pots arrayed like a rainbow is hard work. I’m not saying that a classroom shouldn’t be engaging and organised, but that these extreme lengths are not signs of excellence, rather a sign of chronic anxiety. 

Let's get curious

If I take the Facebook status of friends as an example, I see thread after thread of posts about how stressful teaching is, how busy they are, how much work there is to do.

When new teachers come into the profession, they are inevitably told how stressful teaching is by several people. The ratio of negative comments about teaching far outweigh the bad. For new teachers, this sets up a negative expectation. Their brains are looking for the bad before the good things. This is unhelpful. 

I think as a profession, we need to get curious about the figures surrounding workload, stress and education. If we are going to make things easier and allow educational professionals to carry on doing the extraordinary work they do on a daily basis and enjoy a happy, healthy life out of work, then we need to get really curious. How can we work shorter hours? Who is working shorter hours? Where are they based? How do they do this? 

Top tips for switching off

  • Build down-time into your day gradually. If having a whole Sunday off feels too much, what would feel comfortable to you? Make the smallest change you can and build from there. 
  • Overworking is anxious behaviour. In order to make changes, you need to lower anxiety to get any sense of real perspective or access the parts of your brain that enable you to work effectively. Repeat after me: ‘I need other people, I need fun, I need hobbies, I need community. I need a life!’ Now go find these things. An interesting, happy person is of more value to the profession and it is more selfish to be angry and overworked because your basic needs aren’t being met. The more you take care of your own needs, the lower your anxiety and the nicer you are to be around. 
  • Find a colleague who manages work and life well and get curious about how they manage it. They don’t have to be in education. Take some of their strategies and apply them to your life.