The darkness in the data

April 24, 2012
Shelley Magnusson, ATA Executive Staff Officer, Government

A ground-breaking study of ­Alberta teachers’ work–life ­balance, or lack thereof, was the subject of a talk given by researcher Linda Duxbury to 150 teachers in Edmonton, on April 19.

The evening before, Duxbury had spoken to teachers in ­Calgary about the more than 3,000 teachers who had participated in an online survey that put real numbers behind what has been suspected for some time—­teachers do not have work–life balance. While the full report will not be completed until this fall, ­Duxbury was astounded by what the preliminary data is showing.

Most teachers are clocking an additional 13.5 hours per week doing school-related work at home. That’s on top of the already 41.8 hours they put in each week at school. That means 13.5 hours that teachers do not spend with their families and friends or by themselves, recharging their batteries. Thirteen-plus hours per week is the equivalent of two extra workdays per week. No other occupation in Canada expects its employees to donate an extra two days per week.

About 60 per cent of teachers who answered the survey reported dissatisfaction with their workload; 55 per cent were unhappy with the number of hours they work; 33 per cent reported dissatisfaction with their developmental opportunities; and 26 per cent were unhappy with their ability to meet career goals and with their work schedule.

Study after study has shown that people who are dissatisfied in their perceived ability to control their own work life cost the employer in direct and indirect health costs. Teachers reported that due to work–life issues, they are more likely to reduce their work productivity, increase their use of benefits, reduce their work hours (when possible), be absent from work more often and turn down promotions.

Work–life challenges are especially difficult for teachers who continue to put others first. For example, more than 50 per cent of all teachers reported they felt as if they had no energy and that they had reduced their time spent in recreational or social activities. Over 45 per cent reported that they don’t get enough sleep and have no personal life. Teachers also reported that they are delaying having children or having fewer children because of their work lives.

Duxbury was adamant that the overuse of technology, including the fact that people read and respond to their e-mails while on vacation, will become a defining issue for employers and employees in the future. Just because we can stay connected does not mean we should. The stress caused by the expectation of being on call 24/7 will eventually lead to health problems that will overwhelm the health system. Already pharmacies are reporting an alarming increase in the number of prescriptions for antidepressants.

Duxbury concluded by saying that school boards must address issues associated with work–life balance and workloads if they wish to thrive in the new millennium. It is not business as usual. Boards need to increase teachers’ control of their own work, they need to change the culture and, most important, they need to address concerns associated with workload and use of e-mail.

Duxbury ended the evening with a quote from Woody Allen. “More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”