Work-Life Balance: Is a 50-Hour Week the New Normal?

a pile of books waiting to be marked

Work-life balance is often a topic brought up by teachers, school staff and teaching unions time and time again despite reassurances from the government that things will get better. Among many teachers, there is a feeling that they’re working longer hours than ever before.

Is that actually the case and is it even possible to reduce the volume of working hours that have almost become an unfortunate norm?

Working Hours Remain ‘Relatively Stable’

A recent University College London study suggests that over the last 25 years, teachers have routinely worked an approximate 49-hour week in secondary schools. A staggering 25% of teachers reporting working weeks somewhere in the region of 60 hours while four in ten teachers report that they work evenings; with 10% working weekends and 7% working at night. None of this comes as a surprise, but a reconfirmation that this has been a problem for some time.

What may come as a surprise from the findings, however, is that working hours haven’t been rising in the last few years but have remained relatively stable since 2005. That’s at least 14 years of overworked teachers. The figures are, again to no surprise, significantly higher than many OECD countries. At this point, the question isn’t about what teachers can do to improve their work-life balance, it’s unfortunately about whether they can do anything about it at all.

Limited Research

The research paper also reports that the Department for Education’s own method of collecting information on teacher workload and work-life balance is at its best, limited. Less than 10% of teachers actually respond to these surveys (school responses were 24% and the response rate in such schools was only 34%), the questions rely on teachers accurately recalling information about their working week and the surveys make no attempts to account for time spent working during holidays and half-term breaks.

In essence, government research does not accurately represent the views and reality for many teachers – they simply don’t respond to the surveys. Perhaps because they’re too busy marking at evenings and weekends.

Work-Life Balance: So What’s to Be Done?

As stated earlier, evenings, weekends and long hours have been a mainstay in the UK teaching community for at least 14 years – if not longer. While many teachers, schools and staff are crying out that they’re effectively at breaking point with the increased responsibilities that eat into a teacher’s time (data management, social care, constant scrutiny, making displays, updating displays, meetings, CPD sessions etc…) there doesn’t really seem to be an end in sight and there’s very little time to focus on getting stuff done in the classroom – the peripheries of teaching has become its main focus.

There’s plenty of evidence that teacher retention is a massive issue for schools and government and spending any amount of time on eduTwitter and its associated hashtags allows you to unravel a myriad of horror stories about burnt out NQTs leaving within weeks because their work-life balance has hit such a crushing low. So can anything be done?

The UCL research simply points out that “radical action” is the answer because this has simply become the norm – the argument is that working hours should work toward meeting the “international norms” if a semblance of improved work-life balance is to be met. However, long hours have become a behaviour so entrenched into the profession that it will “be more difficult to shift than previously anticipated”.

Change of such a nature will only likely come from teachers and school leaders working together to consider what matters and what the periphery tasks actually work to achieve. Does a data drop help anyone? Do book looks really make a difference? Do you really need a marking policy that demands every bit of work is ‘quality’ marked? Can schools block out sections of time to get this stuff done if they’re otherwise unflinching and unwilling to give this stuff up?

And more importantly, will policymakers actually take a step back and consider the impact of their policies going forward?

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Let’s Talk About Wellbeing: How Schools Get it Wrong

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