Victorian teachers: stressed but still dedicated
The job of an educator is challenging. Along with the requirement that educators impart knowledge and meet diverse needs while managing group dynamics, we look to educators as a blueprint for aspirational life values.
Although there has been thorough investigation of the OHS concerns that face school principals, notably the work of Philip Riley, less attention has been given to front line Australian educators. In recognition of the complex demands that face this group, recent research conducted by the Monash Workplace Health and Safety Team (https://workhealthsafetyresearch.org/) aimed to provide an overview of Australian Education Union (AEU Vic) members’ views of occupational health and safety (OHS) in their working environments.
The research is a follow up to the Monash team’s 2014 study. It presents a similar analysis of union members’ perceptions of OHS, their safety behaviours within the workplace, along with new information related to work demands and levels of incivility, aggression and violence for the Victorian educator workforce. The latter inclusion aligns with the priority being given to the issue by the Victorian Government, recognised in 2019 by the establishment of the Protective Schools Ministerial Taskforce. Overall, the findings of the research are that although our educators are engaged and thriving in some areas, they are experiencing relatively high levels of workplace stress.
The study was launched in August 2019, when AEU (Victorian branch) members were invited, via the AEU newsletter, to participate in an online OHS survey. A total of 47,712 members had the opportunity to participate in the survey and usable responses were received from 1,109 members. The researchers recognise that the response rate is very low, at 2 per cent, compared to a 10 per cent response rate in 2014. The results should therefore be considered with some caution. Nevertheless, the sample still captures a large cohort and represents a wide cross-section of members with respect to workplace type and size.
A key area of investigation in the research has been to track OHS lead indicators, or positive steps organisations take to prevent an incident occurring in the first place. Examples include everyone in the workplace valuing OHS improvement, being involved in decisions that impact OHS, having necessary information and authority for decisions about safety and receiving positive recognition for safety initiatives. A higher overall score reflects agreement that OHS leading indicators are present in the workplace. In 2014, the score for the AEU members group was lower compared to other industry groups such as construction, mining and employees working in the arts and recreation services area. In 2019 the OHS leading indicator score for AEU members dropped by 6% indicating that, not only are OHS conditions less favourable for those working in the education setting, these conditions are weakening rather than improving.
Incivility aggression and violence
As mentioned above, a new area of investigation in 2019 was to provide base line information about levels of incivility, aggression and violence. Participants reported that over the past twelve months these interactions included intimidation (78%), obscene remarks (71%), verbal threats (60%) and obscene gestures (59%). A substantial proportion of respondents (55%) also reported experiencing having objects thrown at them. The most likely source of these interactions was students or clients. The exception was the case of intimidation where supervisors and colleagues were listed as roughly equal to students or clients as the source.
Interestingly, when asked about whether they reported the incidents, respondents indicated that on the whole they did not report events. The main reasons given were that they accept these interactions as part of the job and they want to defuse the situation rather than make it worse. These justifications possibly reflect the vocational dedication that educators have to the well-being of their students and clients.
Consistent with the reported high level of intimidation outlined above, when asked about workplace bullying (WPB), 41 per cent of respondents experienced these interactions in the last year. The source of WPB was most likely colleagues and superiors. These incidents are distinguished as situations where individuals persistently experience, over a period of time, ongoing negative actions from one or several persons. Unlike incidents of incivility, aggression and violence from students, where incivility and possibly aggression may be justified by educators as a normal part of the challenges involved in student and client learning, WPB interactions may be perceived as more harmful. WPB situations are ongoing and the involvement of peers and superiors may present more challenging circumstances than interactions with students who are acting out and testing boundaries.
In response to other questions about the general violence safety climate in their workplaces, 63 per cent of respondents indicated that the reporting of physical violence is encouraged compared to 48 per cent for the reporting of verbal violence. Importantly, once reported, only 43 per cent considered that reports of violence were taken seriously. In terms of structures and policies to prevent violence from occurring, approximately only a quarter of respondents reported that there were aware of violence prevention policies and around two thirds reported that they had not been provided with violence prevention training from their employer. It seems therefore that although there are perceptions that some reporting systems are in place, there was less agreement about the presence of violence prevention policies and training initiatives.
Another new inclusion in the 2019 research was the measurement of workplace stress as used by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The measurement was used so that outcomes can be compared to UK norms. On average, scores across a number of subareas that contribute to workplace stress indicate that AEU respondents were experiencing high levels of stress. Compared to the UK norms, all these average scores fell into the lowest 20th percentile, indicating an urgent need for attention. The subareas of job demand and the management of workplace change were the most severe. Clarity around roles at work was the most highly-rated subscale followed by peer support and relationships. This means that these specific work stressors were slightly lower than job demands and the management of workplace change but again, the ratings were still below the 20th percentile, the zone that requires urgent attention.
Additional information was collected for member well-being and emotional burnout. With respect to well-being, using the World Health Organization’s measure (WHO-5) across member groups, where a score of 0 represents a very low level of wellbeing and 25 represents a very positive sense of wellbeing, the average score for all respondents was 11.8. The score is below the threshold of 13 and indicates poor levels of wellbeing. Burnout was also assessed and considered to be at a moderate level. Although this is encouraging, respondents’ average experience of emotional burnout between 2014 and 2019 shows a substantial increase.
Other comparisons between 2014 and 2019 show an increase in quiescent silence where employees choose to say less because of their fear of the consequences of speaking up. There was also an increase in acquiescent silence which is where employees are not willing to exert effort in speaking up because they have given up hope for improvement.
More promising results were reported for thriving as reflected by moderate levels of vitality (a sense of feeling energised and alive), and high levels of learning whereby members were committed to continually improving and getting better at what they do. These outcomes were reflected in a high level of engagement as well.
One interpretation of these outcomes is that although educators are stressed and relatively low in terms of well-being and preparedness to speak up, this has not detracted from their engagement in the job or preparedness to keep learning and improving. Arguably this reflects the vocational commitment of our educators. Set against relatively challenging work stresses, they continue to engage in the work and commit to learning and improvement. This is further substantiated by moderate levels of intention to leave the job and relatively low intention to leave the profession. A final note however is that levels of intention to leave the profession although quite low, have increased since 2014.
When looking at these results overall, the picture is one of a vocationally committed educator workforce operating in stressful work conditions. Compared to 2014, 2019 results show that there has been a drop in positive steps taken to prevent an OHS incident from occurring in the first place. Using UK norms, respondents reported high job demands, low job control, and stress associated with the management of workplace change and manager support. Well-being, as measured by the World Health Organization measure of wellbeing (WHO-5), is low and educators are showing increasing resistance to speaking up as an outcome of fear of consequences and also due to a sense of hopelessness. Set against these negative experiences, educators are still committed to learning, engaged in what they do and are not actively looking to leave the profession. These findings profile a group of educators who prioritise learning and caring.
As well as the findings connected with general OHS conditions and responses, the study provides a good baseline for experiences with respect to incivility, aggression and violence. While most respondents reported incidents of obscene remarks and gestures from students, the high reporting of intimidation was confirmed by bullying that came from sources other than students and clients. Importantly, the results show a resistance to reporting incidents of incivility, aggression and violence. It seems that the resistance to reporting is connected with professional identity: the educators saw it as part of the job and they wanted to diffuse the situation rather than make it worse. Again, these results show the level of commitment of our educators to continue to do the job and accept negative interactions in view of a greater sense of commitment to education priorities.
In sum, there is a lot to be proud of when looking at our educators. They continue to stay in the profession, care for students and clients and excuse incivility and aggression. It would seem that there is room however, to improve their safety and well-being when at work.
 Philip Riley’s most recent report is, Riley, P. (2019). The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey: 2018 data. Fitzroy, Victoria: Australian Catholic University.
 Edwards, Webster , Van Laar & Easton (2008) Psychometric analysis of the UK Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards work-related stress Indicator Tool, Work & Stress, 22:2, 96-107.
 World Health Organization. (1998, February 12-13). Wellbeing measures in primary health care/the DEPCARE project: Report on a WHO meeting. Stockholm, Sweden.
Cathy Sheehan is an Associate Professor at Monash Business School. She began her career as a teacher before working at Telstra. She then worked as an academic at the University of Tasmania and Monash. She has 30 years’ experience as a researcher including project work with the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) and the Australian Senior HR Roundtable. More recently she has worked with Worksafe Victoria, developing research into OHS lead indicators and psycho-social factors at work. She has successfully led an Australian Research Council–funded project, co-written over 20 industry reports and almost 40 quality articles in internationally peer reviewed journals.
This article appears in Professional Voice 13.3 The new basics.