‘Have a quiet cuppa and relax!’… But what does research actually say about how teachers unwind?

For the last six months, we have had ‘teacher wellbeing’ switched on with Google Alerts, meaning that every weekend we are shown how many articles across the web have included this specific phrase. It can take hours to sweep through them all, and thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. Many of the articles or posts provide handy tips: ‘7 ways to beat school stress’, or ‘top tips to unwind after work’. These articles are usually positive, well-intentioned, and full of genuinely handy pointers for teachers who might be struggling, or those who just want to try something out to boost how they feel. However, it is hard to reject all manner of cynicism after months of trawling through articles that offer few citations or supporting material from research. People are people, and we are subjective beings, so not everything can be recorded or proven as such; but, for us, an evidence base is important if you are recommending how people can improve their lives.

Of course, as I mentioned, there is a lot of good going on out there. The internet is a-flurry with teachers, health and psychology practitioners, and consultants offering support through videos and podcasts; reaching people in need is becoming more engaging and creative, which should be celebrated. We are particular fans of Dr Rangan Chatterjee (see links below), who has a fantastic podcast and YouTube channel, as well as being an author of some excellent books. He focuses on wellness in body and mind, and applies not only his own expertise, but frequently interviews other experts in sleep, exercise, nutrition, or those with an inspiring story to tell. His advice, especially in his new book, often centres around not just listening to his expertise, but then offers ways for you to go and take some time out for yourself.

On the surface, this sort of intervention can play into the hands of those who label wellbeing as fluffy and intangible (including us six months ago), and so we were determined to access research that added some credible weight to the process of ‘unwinding’ and finding time for yourself. Rachel shared recently that she has to listen to a Dr Chatterjee, or similar podcast, on the way home from work, to distract her from the day and stop her thinking about work into the evening. This comment prompted us to find out whether this is a legitimate form of reducing stress. Does ‘unwinding’ actually help?

Well, we found some cracking studies!

Recently we were put in touch with Mark Cropley, Professor of Psychology at Surrey University. Mark has done some fascinating research into ‘work-related rumination’, meaning how much we think about work in our leisure time. Some of the studies examine how much teachers ruminate about work at home, and firstly categorises them into ‘high strain’ or ‘low strain’, based on their job demands, the control over aspects of their work, and how their skills are utilised. For example, a teacher working in a demanding yet unsupportive environment with little control over their workload would rightly be classed as high strain.

Unsurprisingly, the high job strain teachers found it much harder to stop thinking about work in the evening; by 7pm, the low strain teachers’ ruminations were reducing nicely, whereas high strain still had similar levels of rumination right up until 9pm. This can seem insignificant on a graph, but think about it: should we really be thinking, or worrying, about our work until 9pm and even later? The studies even suggest that watching television wasn’t an escape from work ruminations.

The studies find that work-related ruminations are not necessarily linked to how much work you do at home, suggesting that it is more about the teachers’ perceptions of their workplace, its demands and their control over work, that cause them to think or worry about school long into the evening. So it isn’t merely a case of saying ‘no emails after 6pm’ and ‘don’t take marking home with you.’ It goes deeper than that, and back to the model of Self Determination Theory and our basic psychological needs.

The research also states that higher instances of work rumination occur when alone, which advocates spending leisure time with family and friends.

More recently, Dr Cropley has researched how work-related ruminations link to heart rate variability and cortisol secretion; in other words, the research began to assess how stress levels caused by work ruminations could start to affect physiological health. Cortisol, a stress hormone, increases its secretion when one is feeling stressed or on high alert (think fight or flight), and has risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, cognitive functioning, depression, and even upper respiratory infection. A 2013 study (referenced below) found that teachers who had high work rumination in the evening had high cortisol secretion when compared with the low ruminating group. Clearly, not being able to unwind has more impact on us than just feeling a bit preoccupied with work.

So, what does this all mean? Well firstly, in a perverse way, we were delighted to find a set of studies which examined how much teachers think about work at home, and how it is clearly linked to higher stress and, inevitably, reduced wellbeing. It felt like a lightbulb moment that validates so many of the ‘fluffy’ articles and posts we mentioned earlier on.

As for recommendations, here’s what we have come up with so far, having read this research:

Teachers:

  • The studies suggest that those who find distractions from work are able to reduce or avoid work-related ruminations. These ‘distractions’ could range from hobbies, exercise, spending time with family and friends, or to engaging with mindfulness techniques, videos or podcasts.
  • Be aware that work can begin to cloud your mind, and take active steps to do things in your leisure time that take a break from your work. However, these need not be unrelated to education; many of us take to EduTwitter or other platforms to engage with likeminded professionals to be reinvigorated about our vocation and to forget our daily challenges!
  • ‘You’ time is actually very important. Have a cuppa. Read a book. Unwind and switch off. We all think we can battle through our work-dominated lives, but who knows what toll this will take on us unless we take time to unwind.
  • Sleep! The studies also found that the 6 hours 48 minute average sleeping time in their participants was slightly lower than the national average.

Leaders:

  • Ultimately, the studies concluded that it wasn’t the workload alone that bothered teachers, but it was the demands placed upon them. The research suggests that teachers who lack autonomy and control think about work more into their evenings, and are unable to switch off or unwind. Those who are in demanding workplaces struggle similarly.

And, so, this seems to come full circle to most of our blog posts so far. Yes, teachers could be offered CBT or mindfulness courses, and those would probably be quite effective at helping them unwind and cope with their working lives.

But why continue to try and cure what we could prevent? Schools and leaders could help their teachers unwind from work and use their leisure time to actually rest and relax by creating schools that show more trust and empowerment of their teachers and ease up on the relentless drive for accountability.

And then teachers truly will be able to have a cuppa and a bit of time to themselves.

Thanks for reading.

Sam and Rachel

References:

Dr Rangan Chatterjee  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDnwlb3IQDPJtFysPUJbDFQ

Cropley and Purvis (2003) Job strain and rumination about work issues during leisure time: A diary study. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF WORK AND ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, 2003, 12 (3), 195–207

Cropley, et al (2013) The Relationship Between Work-Related Rumination and Evening and Morning Salivary Cortisol Secretion. Stress Health 31: 150–157

Cropley, et al (2006) Job strain, work rumination, and sleep in school teachers. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF WORK AND ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 2006, 15 (2), 181–196

Griffith, et al (1999) An investigation of coping strategies associated with job stress in teachers. British Journal of Educational Psychology (1999), 69, 517–53

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