Teacher Stress And Burnout Research Paper

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1. Teacher Stress

Stress researchers regularly lament the lack of agreement in the field about what stress is and how it should be measured. The absence of a shared conceptual framework is especially evident in the study of teacher stress and has led to tremendous heterogeneity with respect to the measurement strategies used to operationalize the construct. Some investigators have focused on organizational pressures (e.g., unavailability of needed resources, workload, lack of control), others have examined the effects of interpersonal conflicts, and still others have studied teacher stress in terms of occupational dissatisfaction. In many cases, investigators have used idiosyncratic measures of teacher stress constructed specifically for their study, rather than established instruments. This practice needs to be abandoned as it introduces an undesirable source of variance that further obfuscates an already murky picture.

2. Teacher Burnout

The term ‘burnout’ was first introduced by Freudenberger (1974), who described it as a frequent and serious occupational hazard among professionals working under difficult conditions in alternative institutions (e.g., free clinics, halfway houses). Despite important methodological difficulties, to be discussed later, the study of teacher burnout has not been plagued by the conceptual and measurement problems that are endemic to the teacher stress literature. To a large extent, this can be attributed to the fact that investigations of teacher burnout have generally adopted the tripartite conceptualization of burnout offered by Maslach and Jackson (1981). According to this model, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal achievement are the three key components of the burnout syndrome. Widespread acceptance of this formulation has resulted in the virtually uncontrasted choice of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), an instrument developed to assess the three constituents of burnout.

It is important to note that proper evaluation of the teacher stress and burnout literature is impeded by a pervasive tendency to use those terms interchangeably rather than as separate constructs. This confusion becomes especially evident when one considers the sizeable literature on the relationship between stress– burnout and health in teachers. In some studies stress and/or burnout are investigated as predictors of ill health, in other studies they are used as outcome measures, and in yet other studies they are treated as both. Although stress can be profitably studied as a possible antecedent of poor health, the same cannot be said for burnout. Burnout is generally conceptualized as a coping failure, an outcome that results from one’s inability to deal with prolonged occupational stress. The MBI, in fact, is replete with items describing physical and emotional symptoms. Viewed in this way, what sense does it make to ask, for example, whether feeling fatigued and used up accurately predict physical exhaustion?

3. Teacher Stress, Burnout, And Health

Much of the current interest in the study of teacher stress and burnout was sparked by the idea that pathogenic occupational factors might compromise the health of teachers. The question of whether job stress is causally linked to poor health outcomes in teachers is obviously timely. Should the empirical evidence point to such a link, our educational system would benefit from worksite intervention and prevention programs. A recent review (Guglielmi and Tatrow 1998) identified 40 empirical investigations of the health effects of teacher stress and burnout. Approximately half of those studies were conducted outside the USA in such countries as the UK, Finland, Canada, Australia, Israel, Sweden, and Northern Ireland. What does this abundant cross-cultural literature indicate? At first glance, the findings would appear to support the presence of an association between stress–burnout and ill health in teachers. Guglielmi and Tatrow’s critical analysis of this literature, however, makes it abundantly clear that a definitive answer is not yet possible. With respect to conceptual rigor and methodological sophistication, the study of teacher stress, burnout, and health is still in its infancy. It is useful to outline the numerous serious problems that characterize this area of research because the same inadequacies are ubiquitously present in the teacher stress and burnout literature as a whole. In the following sections, these difficulties are identified and recommendations for future research are offered.

3.1 Inadequate Measures And The Problem Of Self-Report

As indicated earlier, a lamentable measurement anarchy pervades the teacher stress literature. In the specific area of teacher stress and health, well over half of the published studies have used ‘homegrown’ stress measures whose psychometric properties are unknown. Such practice raises grave concerns about the validity and reliability of measurement, makes it difficult to compare findings across studies, and will ultimately thwart the comparative assessment of occupational stress associated with teaching in relation to other professions. Another important problem centers around the virtually exclusive reliance on self-report as a way to gather information about stress, burnout, and health. Self-report measures are notoriously vulnerable to selective distortion by self-presentational biases which seriously threaten the validity of measurement. Moreover, when the predictor measure (stress or burnout) and the criterion measure (health status) are both assessed by the same method (self-report), a problem known as shared method variance might spuriously produce statistically high but conceptually trivial correlations that, then, can be erroneously interpreted as meaningful and as indicating a causal association between predictor and criterion (Kasl 1978). Independent objective indicators of stress (e.g., teaching load, class size, availability of resources) need to be added to the subjective measures. The same applies to the assessment of the criterion; physiological indicators, behavioral measures, and objectively established clinical endpoints need to be considered in addition to self-reported health status.

3.2 Unwarranted Causal Inference

Drawing unwarranted causal inferences from correlational investigations obviously leads to erroneous conclusions about the relationship between teacher stress or burnout and health. Several possible obstacles that make causal inferences unwarranted need to be considered.

3.2.1 Reverse Causation. The stress and burnout reported by teachers could be the consequence, rather than the cause, of ill health. It has been noted repeatedly that people’s self-reports of past events or experiences (e.g., stress) are distorted by a type of recall bias known as retrospective contamination. Being ill, in other words, may cause teachers to over report the amount of stress experienced as they try to find logical antecedents for their poor health (Leventhal and Tomarken 1987).

3.2.2 Construct Overlap. If the presence of somatic symptoms is considered a defining component of the stress and burnout constructs, a high (but again meaningless) correlation between ill health and stress–burnout is guaranteed. As indicated earlier, for example, the most commonly used measures of burnout, the MBI and the Burnout Measure, contain many physical exhaustion items. If a burned out person is, by definition, also ill, there is obviously little value in demonstrating that this individual suffers from some physical symptoms.

3.2.3 Can The Cause Follow The Effect? If stress or burnout are causes of ill health, they must precede the health problems. In the vast majority of cases, the published literature makes it impossible to establish whether the required temporal sequence of events is satisfied because no attempt is made to determine whether the physical symptoms occurred before or after the research participants started teaching.

3.2.4 Third Variables. Although statistically significant correlations between stress–burnout and ill health are often interpreted in causal terms, it is certainly possible that no causal link actually exists and that a third unidentified variable is the cause of both. Psychological disturbance or personal difficulties unrelated to the job, for instance, could produce both a reduced tolerance to occupational demands and a heightened vulnerability to illness (or perhaps a tendency to exaggerate one’s physical problems).

Fundamentally, whether or not causal links can be established and whether or not the direction of causal relationships can be clarified are research design issues. The methodological shift advocated in the next section will hopefully go a long way toward dealing effectively with these causal inference problems.

3.3 Inappropriate Research Design And Lack Of Attention To Individual Difference Variables

The importance of individual characteristics in mediating or moderating the impact of stressors has long been acknowledged in the occupational stress literature and, more generally, in the stress research field. The teacher stress and burnout literature stands out as a glaring exception in its insensitivity to this issue. Variables that have been repeatedly found to influence the impact of occupational stressors include personality characteristics (e.g., hardiness, Type A behavior pattern in its old and new formulations), gender and other demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race), the availability of supportive networks, as well as other individual factors (e.g., cognitive appraisal). Against this backdrop of complex relationships and interactions, the teacher stress literature has typically failed to adopt appropriate multivariate strategies and has preferred instead to focus on simplistic bivariate relationships between, for example, teacher stress on one side and job satisfaction, or psychological dysfunction, or physical symptoms, or stress reduction approaches on the other side. Cross-sectional investigations of bivariate relationships are unlikely to enhance our understanding of the individual and interactive contribution of multiple variables. More sophisticated research designs, better equipped to test multifactorial models of teacher stress, are urgently needed (Kasl 1987).

The investigation of teacher stress and burnout would benefit from a shift to carefully designed longitudinal studies, in which the predictor is assessed before the criterion. When appropriate multivariate data–analytic strategies are applied (e.g., hierarchical regression, cross-lagged panel correlation, structural equation modeling), these research designs can be used to test the fit of causal models of teacher stress. They hold the potential to answer questions about both the direction of causality and about the interactive contribution of multiple factors (Frese and Zapf 1988).

3.4 Empiricism In Need Of A Theory

From a conceptual and methodological perspective, the overall quality of the teacher stress and burnout literature trails considerably behind its parent occupational stress literature. Over the last 20 years, several heuristically fruitful theoretical formulations (e.g., the Person–Environment Fit Model, the Demand–Control Model, the Effort–Reward Model) have guided empirical contributions to the general area of occupational stress. Despite the demonstrated value of those theoretical perspectives, the teacher stress–burnout research has remained unfortunately impervious to their influence. The typical teacher stress–burnout study is essentially atheoretical. Dozens of measures are intercorrelated and post hoc explanations of statistically significant associations are offered without an effort to interpret those findings within a theoretically meaningful framework. The adoption of a theoretical framework would help organize research findings across investigations, would introduce consistency in the way constructs are operationalized and assessed and, most importantly, would point to focused research hypotheses to be tested empirically.

In the occupational health literature, for example, the Demand–Control Model has emerged as a particularly influential theoretical perspective which has stimulated a tremendous amount of work, especially in Europe. According to this model, job demands (e.g., workload, deadlines) and decision latitude (e.g., freedom and control) are the key factors that increase and decrease, respectively, job strain (Karasek and Theorell 1990). On the basis of this model, focused hypotheses can be formulated concerning the conditions that are likely to exacerbate or to alleviate occupational stress. The predictive value of the Demand–Control Model has been empirically established in a variety of work settings (Kristensen 1996, Theorell and Karasek 1996); yet, the study of teacher stress has not been inspired by it. The futility and sterility that characterize much of the current research efforts in the field of teacher stress and burnout are especially disconcerting when one considers the ultimate importance of this work. The field is ready for a shift from atheoretical, descriptive, and cross-sectional studies to theory-based prospective evaluations of causal models of teacher stress and burnout. Until this happens, stress-reduction interventions targeted at teachers are obviously premature.


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