Can you help us to unravel why we feel so much pressure?
Just like with many other educational institutions, the pressure of the job at nearly 20 vocational schools in the built-up area of Western Holland was experienced as high. Its executive board had picked up signs of that from the staff council and from employee satisfaction surveys. And that was a good enough reason to do something about it. But where to begin? After all, it’s hard to make policy on the strength of just a feeling. Which is why the executive board asked us for a quantitative analysis of the workload.
The teachers and other staff of the school were the ones struggling under the high pressure of work. The aim of our project was to give them the tools to tackle the problem themselves. We therefore worked with them to map out the workload and pressure of work and to feed back the results to them as well.
Our analysis focused on three of the schools. These schools had applied to us out of their own free will. We got acquainted with the management and a group of teachers and support staff. We used extensive interviews to ask questions like: How do you perform your job? Can you manage with your tasks and the available time? What sorts of problems do you run into?
Some teachers said it took them more than 80 hours: the work does not stop at 5 p.m. Others said: I get to go to China!
One of the three schools that took part had worked out the annual working time for its teachers completely according to the book. Nevertheless, the pressure of work was not much less as a result. So we analysed the steps that they took to arrive at their annual working time and correlated that information with the interviews. That revealed some big differences between how people work with and experience their assigned time. For example, 18 hours were indicated for organizing a trip abroad for 80 people from a tourism course: plenty of time for some people, but hardly enough for others. Regarding the pressure of work, something similar was experienced around the trips themselves. A total of 40 hours were indicated for a five-day trip to China. Some teachers said it took them more than 80 hours: the work does not stop at 5 p.m. Others said: I get to go to China!
The hot potatoes remained untouched until later in the school year
We asked all the teachers and support staff from the group that we worked with to keep careful track of exactly what they did. And whether that was all part of their annual working time, and how much they worked at home, and how much they did at school. That revealed some interesting details. Here too, the conclusion was that there were some big differences between teachers. Some of them put in more than 45 hours while others sufficed with fewer than 40. There were some big differences in sticking to their annual working time as well, while not even all tasks had been planned by mid-December. The hot potatoes remained untouched until later in the school year. Those tasks that had been planned were not evenly divided, but they did fit in the annual budget with room to spare. And based on 40 weeks of work, it should take no more than 42 hours a week to perform all tasks (including those that had yet to be planned). On average, that was enough for everybody.
For example, it was no exception if it took a computer 7.5 minutes to start up
Next, we spent some time tagging along with the teachers. And indeed, there were definitely some stressful parts of the job. For example, it was no exception if it took a computer 7.5 minutes to start up: quite a long time if you consider that a class takes 55 minutes. There was also some regular project time in a classroom without desktop computers. Teachers had to organize a laptop computer table before they could do their work, while an hour later presentations had to be delivered in a classroom with a standard computer set-up. In addition, the common room was often too full and too busy to be able to get any work done. And the staff rota was riddled with last-minute changes.
Our conclusion was clear. In a perfect world, the annual working times would be fine. But not in reality, because the right conditions were not in place. And that reality is something that the schools and teams created themselves. There was a lack of clarity on staff rotas, the use of resources, and conduct in the common room – not to mention a proper division of tasks over the teachers and over the year. The pressure for everyone to get along and be mindful of each other was one of the causes.
We presented our findings to the board, teachers, and support staff and identified the hot point: the right conditions for working simply were not in place, and it would take a lot of effort to change that to any significant extent. Some things can be improved by the teaching team itself. Other improvements would require help from support staff. The people at the vocational school certainly have their work cut out for them, but at least now they know where to begin. We do follow up, of course: we ring them regularly to ask how things are going and provide specific advice on how to tackle pain points.