The impact of teaching on happiness at home

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Most teachers know they don't have a healthy work-life balance and fear that their relationships will pay the ultimate price

I think our relationship has definitely changed since I started teaching," Lauren Mears*, a young history teacher in a secondary school in southeast England, says. "When I chose to stop working at my previous job and do the PGCE, we never really talked about how it would affect our relationship or that there would suddenly be a big difference in our working hours."

Lauren got married last summer, and after a busy 12 months working as an NQT and planning her big day, she was looking forward to blissful married life. But those hopes quickly disappeared as Lauren began her second full year of teaching.

"My NQT year was busy as we were organising the wedding, but I was presuming things would be easier once my NQT and wedding were out of the way. If anything, I would say the past term - the first being married - has been the hardest in our relationship as I have been working even more than I was in previous years," Lauren observes, starkly.

The heavy workload started to take its toll on her relationship, with her husband saying he felt like a "crutch" that Lauren relied on to "moan" about school.

"All he expects of me when I get home is to spread out my marking, get upset about it and then work some more. It has meant that `quality' time has been really squeezed as I am either working at weekends or worrying about work, when we are supposed to be having a nice time."

Lauren's story, sadly, is far from unusual. The long hours, the crippling workload and the stress of day-to-day life in school invariably have a knock-on effect on the home lives of teachers and heads. A survey last year on the TES website found that 55 per cent of teachers work more than 56 hours a week during term time, placing teachers among the hardest- working professionals. And this affects personal relationships.

It should come as no surprise that the Teacher Support Network (TSN) says that concern about domestic life is one of the main reasons that teachers get in touch with the charity.

According to the network, 80 per cent of the calls it receives are about worries regarding well-being and family relationships. During 2010 and 2011, the TSN took more than 3,000 calls from teachers who were worried about how their working life was having an adverse effect on their home life.

TSN chief executive Julian Stanley believes that the problem is getting worse. The percentage of calls his organisation has been fielding just on relationship anxieties has been increasing over the past few years, he says.

"It has ever been the case, but we have seen more of it emerging recently," Stanley says. "The hours people work are longer, and there is an expectation that staff will take part in all the normal day-to-day stuff as well as the extracurricular activities. By its nature, (the job) is very demanding.

"The stresses have been exacerbated recently (because) there's a real fear of redundancy," he adds. "In the current climate people are setting aside the pay and pensions agenda and are more concerned about whether or not they say `no' to taking on something extra. That might be true of all professions, but it is particularly true in teaching."

The TSN ran a survey in 2011, in which 96 per cent of respondents said their home life was being affected by their workload, with responses such as "My family is growing up without me" being among the most common.

Interestingly, the charity says that it is planning to look into the proportion of teachers who end up in a relationship with another teacher, as many believe this is the only route to a stable home life.

"It is because they understand what the other one is doing," Stanley says. "It seems to be that there is a greater chance of the relationship working if the partner is a teacher."

He just doesn't get it

A lack of understanding is something Lauren lists as a problem with her own home life. While supportive and empathetic, her husband, an engineer, simply doesn't "get it", she says.

"If someone works in private industry, their breaks are breaks, their lunch is time to eat lunch," Lauren says. "My breaks are duties or detentions and my lunches are detentions or running around sorting something out or helping the Year 10 (pupil) who turns up having struggled with an essay for a week and the deadline is tomorrow. My husband doesn't see why I can't just say `this is my break now' and switch off - but there are so many uncontrollable factors in school."

The strains, Lauren says, have led her to reconsider her choice of career and she is convinced that it can no longer be the job for life that it once was.

"If I'm honest, I've had second thoughts about being a teacher but only in the sense that I'm realising that it can't be a lifelong career: it can't be a long-term job like it might have been for my parents' generation," she says. "I can't do this until I'm whatever grand old age the government has made retirement. I won't even be within spitting distance of it. I'm looking at four to five years and we'll see where I'm at then."

Lauren's outlook fits with the national picture. According to a recent survey by the NASUWT teaching union, nearly half of young teachers felt their workload was excessive, while more than 50 per cent said they had experienced bullying in the workplace. Such stresses lead to a high number of young teachers leaving the profession within their first five years.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates has often pointed to how a culture of fear is being generated in schools as pressure is increased on teachers to chase results. It is invariably having an impact on teachers' home lives, she says.

"The pressure does not just affect teachers' health and well-being, it is also hitting their family life. We regularly have members expressing concern that they don't have any work-life balance and feel they are on a treadmill," Keates says. "We have members who are on medication, who have trouble sleeping because of the stress that they are under at work."

The continued pressure on teachers will have a detrimental effect on the teaching profession, Keates argues, claiming that the government will soon face serious challenges when it comes to teacher recruitment.

"We are already seeing significant numbers of teachers leaving the profession, and we've seen a big drop in the number of people wanting to join. The system will break if we are not careful and we will drive good teachers out," she adds.

As a headteacher and a father of two, Jonathan Fawcett is accustomed to the acute pressures that school life can place on a person's home life, but as a school leader, his outlook is more phlegmatic.

The head of Derbyshire's Swanwick Hall School says the nature of the job means that there is "always something to be done". The hectic schedule of his and his wife's diary, herself an assistant head at a separate secondary, means that they are constantly forced to juggle the calendar to make sure they have some quality time with their children.

Hanging on the wall of his office is a quote: "Nobody's retirement speech ever said, `I wish I'd spent more time in work'." It is, however, a mantra he does not always abide by.

In Fawcett's world, eating as a family happens just once a week, the only week night where work doesn't feature is Friday, and the only day off is Saturday.

"On Sunday I know I will have a lot of work to do for Monday, so I will lock myself away from my family in the dining room," he says.

But despite the impact that the work and stress have on his home life, Fawcett is aware that it is all part of the job.

"What I don't want is for my kids to be missing out on me because I am too busy giving me to other kids. But that is what I am paid to do," he shrugs. "We are paid a lot of money to deal with the stresses. You could take a job that pays less and has less stress."

For Fawcett, the fact that work has an impact on home life is inescapable, but it doesn't apply only to teachers. "We need to get away from this obsession that teachers work hard and no one else does." Everyone needs to be more flexible about their work-life balance, he says.

"We have to remember we are not badly off. My pension is getting hit, and I have not had a pay rise for two years, but I probably earn more on my own than 90 to 95 per cent of the households in the community my school serves."

It is a view shared by Ben Bond, assistant head at Woodlands Community College in Southampton, but he believes that the pressures of school life are only going to increase as government policies to improve standards take hold.

Bond is also married to a teacher and most evenings he sits in the kitchen, working on his laptop, while his wife does the same in the living room. The nature of being a teacher has a direct impact on his own children, he says. Again, eating as a family around the table is a rarity. Both he and his wife are at school by 7.30am and he is seldom home before 7.30pm.

The only time he sees it getting easier is when his children are older and can look after themselves more. "Without wishing my children to be older, we will have a different dynamic that will allow me more time as I won't have to put them to bed, or get them dressed in the morning," Bond says.

It is a depressingly bleak but pragmatic snapshot of how working in a school hits a teacher's work-life balance. And although teachers may feel obligated to say "yes" to their senior leadership team, the senior leadership team is, in turn, under pressure to constantly improve.

"There is a relentless drive to improve standards; schools must be seen to prove value for money. That puts pressure on heads and there are lots of examples of school leaders being here one day and gone the next," Bond observes.

Pressure release

From the headteacher wringing their hands privately in their office, right down to the NQT gasping for air standing in front of a class of teenagers, the pressure valve has to be released somewhere.

For Lauren, like so many others, that release is at home. The burden of being a teacher is then shared, sometimes unhappily, between two. How the relationship holds up under that added weight is down to the strength of the bond.

"We have started 2013 determined to make some big changes to my approach to work and to how much I work at home as we both feel we can't carry on like last term, with me leaving in the dark, returning in the dark and taking only one evening off a week," Lauren says. "I'm sharing some of my responsibilities at school and taking advice from other teachers to make better use of my time, particularly when it comes to marking.

"If I'm honest, I've worried about our marriage, but I feel like we're addressing the issues with work just in time," she admits. "My partner is, in the end, much more important to me than how many hours I work and I think he has felt that I prioritise the kids and the marking over him, which is not the right way for him to feel. I want to change that."

* Name has been changed

Stress by numbers

  • 96 per cent of teachers said their health and well-being were affected by their workload.
  • 3,002 calls were made to the TSN in 2010-11 concerning incidents involving family relationships.
  • 80 per cent of calls concerned non-work-related issues.
  • 274 calls were made about family issues between September and December 2012.
    • Source: Teacher Support Network

      A normal week?

      On average, teachers are working 48.3 hours a week during term time, placing them among the hardest-working professionals alongside managers in mining and energy industries who average about 49 hours a week.

      According to a survey of 1,600 teachers by the TES website, 55 per cent of teachers are work- ing more than 56 hours a week.

      The poll also found that 78 per cent of teachers regularly work on Sundays, preparing lessons for the next day.

      It stands in stark contrast to the perception of teachers, with many people believing they start work at 9am and leave at 3pm, and enjoy 13 weeks' holiday.

      The longest hours

      Average number of hours worked per week:

      1. Production managers and directors of mining and energy firms 49.6

      2. Teachers 48.3

      3. Advertising and PR directors 42.2

      4. Financial institution managers and directors 40.9

      5. IT engineers 39.0

      6. Chief executive officers and solicitors 38.5

      7. Medical practitioners 38.4

      8. HR managers and directors 38.0

      9. Barristers and judges 36.0

      10. Accountants 35.6

      Source: TES, 2012.

      Original headline: Domestic bliss? Far from it

      Photo credit: AlamyKOBAL

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