A Synthesis of Research on the Causes, Effects, and Reduction Strategies of Teacher Stress

A Synthesis of Research on the Causes, Effects, and Reduction Strategies of Teacher Stress

Carolyn Wiley

Occupational stress has been a topic of significant research for the last two decades, reflecting the detrimental effects of employees. In particular, teacher stress is borne out of the demands on the individual teacher. Strong evidence suggests that many substitute teacher costs are a direct result of teacher stress. The costs associated with this stressful occupation can be high in phsycial, economical, and academic terms. Human Resource Managers can detect the early stages of stress and advocate organizational stress management programs. Research on the causes of, effects of, and reduction strategies for teacher stress are discussed.

Stress is a biological phenomena that is experienced by all persons regardless of their socio-economic status, occupation, or age. While there is a lack of universal agreement on the meaning of stress, a few articles attempt to define stress. McGrath (1976) and Schuler (1980) generally define stress as a dynamic condition, in which an individual is confronted with an opportunity, constraint, or demand on being, having, andor doing what he or she desires. Beehr and Newman (1978) provide a more specific definition: job stress is a condition wherein job-related factors interact with the worker to change her psychological or physiological condition such that she is forced to deviate from normal functioning. Their definition is useful because it describes stress as a type of person-environment fit encompassing both individual and workplace stressors.

Hans Selye (1976) gives a thorough overview of stress from a practical and medical perspective in his book, The Stress of Life. He reports that stress is essentially the rate of wear and tear on the body. Moreover, it is impossible to live without experiencing some amount of stress all the time. Very simple activities and problems as well as the most complex ones can cause stress. They simply vary in degree. For example, crossing a busy intersection, exposure to a draft, or even sheer joy are significant enough to activate the body’s stress mechanism. Therefore, stress is not necessarily something bad, nor is it necessarily something good. It is simply something that cannot be avoided.

The same stress that makes one person ill, makes for an invigorating experience for another. A major factor to consider in order to avoid harmful stress is whether you are adjusting correctly to life situations. This, in Selye’s (1976) estimation, is the very root of the disease producing conflicts, (i.e., improper reactions to life situations).

During his years and many autopsies, he has never seen a person die of old age. Rather, there is always one part of the body that wears out first and wrecks the whole human machinery, merely because the other parts cannot function without it. With this in mind, Selye (1976) states that an ever increasing proportion of people die from the so-called wear and tear diseases, diseases of civilization, or degenerative diseases, which are primarily stress. The main issue is that the human body wears longest when it wears evenly. As we look at “stress” among teachers we might question how evenly they wear themselves out. Wearing oneself out is as living, and it is inevitable. However, I would guess that few teachers would venture to say that they are wearing themselves out evenly.

The Need For Synthesis

State and local school administrators are increasingly concerned with the issue of stress in teaching (Hudson and Meagher, 1983). Public school teachers spend roughly half their waking lives in work-related activities. It seems likely then, that job related psychological and physical stress factors may have important influences on their health. To better understand the causes and effects of stress in teaching, the existing research needs to be synthesized.

One important reason for studying teacher stress is that their work experiences can have detrimental effects on them, their students, and the learning environment. As a consequence of their job conditions, many teachers are finding that their feelings about themselves, their students, and their profession are more negative over time. These teachers are susceptible to developing chronic feelings of emotional exhaustion and fatigue, negative attitudes toward their students, and .feelings of diminishing job accomplishments. Thus, attention to the issue of job stress as well as burnout–a form of stress–is needed. Job burnout can be thought of in three aspects: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of diminished personal accomplishment (Schwab and Jackson, 1986:14). However, it is the emotional exhaustion aspect that may cause feelings of dread at the thought of having to put in another day on the job. The contention here is that these feelings are aspects of stress and often result in absenteeism, which may lead to student absenteeism and a lack of academic achievement.

In addition to addressing the causes and effects of stress, this article provides information on remedies to combat negative stress factors. These remedies or strategies reflect those proposed by the stress researchers and the teachers under study.

Stress in Teaching

Numerous studies address the causes and effects of stress in the workplace. These studies included information on the characteristics of the environment as stressors, on the different perceptions and appraisals of stressful situations, on the individual’s reactions to stress, and on how to reduce stress.

Research on job stress and employee health examines the interaction of certain job, work environment, and personal characteristics which are assumed to be causal elements in job stress. These stressors can be classified into four types including extra-organizational, organizational, task-related, and individual stressors. Extra-organizational stressors come from outside the employing organization. Organizational stressors come from within the employing organization. Task-related stressors pertain to the job duties and responsibilities; and individual stressors involve personal difficulties that may be magnified by work roles.

Such stressors can lead to adverse physical, psychological, and/or behavioral consequences for workers. See Table 1 for a list of stress factors and the physical, psychological, and work-related consequences of stress. Obviously, the work organization can be negatively affected since the effects of stress are manifested in employee performance measures and absenteeism (West and West, 1989:47).

Table 1

Teacher Stress Categories, Effects and Reduction Strategies(1)

Stress Categories Psychological Physical

and Factors Effects Effects

Extra-organiza- anger increased heart

tional rate

Professional Status

anxiety nervous disorder

Formal Training


Salaries depression cardiovascular


Class Size tension

Inadequate facilities/ feeling that teaching upset stomachs

equipment is damaging to

psychological and

Inadequate resources physical health headaches


Role Conflict indecisiveness fatigue

Role Ambiguity

peptic ulcers

Time Demands confusion

Poor Staff Relations occassional insomnia


Distruptive Students





Individual worry

Demands on the


Poor interpersonal cynicism



Inadequate training


High expectations of

the profession feelings of inad-

equacy as a teacher

Stress Categories Work-Related Reduction

and Factors Effects Strategies

Extra-organiza- deteriation in administrative

tional work perfor- support

Professional Status mance


Formal Training increased need support

for substitute

Organizational teachers

Salaries excessive better facilities


Class Size pay incentives

lower productiv-

Inadequate facilities/ ity job redesign



Inadequate resources


Role Conflict stress transmitted QWL programs

to the students

Role Ambiguity teams

less constructive

Time Demands feedback to participative

students decision-making

Poor Staff Relations

less learning in wellness

Distruptive Students the classroom programs

Powerlessness less positive

reinforcement for

Contingent students


Individual low enthusiasm RJPs

Demands on the

Individual depersalization counseling

of students services

Poor interpersonal

relations empowerment

Inadequate training

High expectations of

the profession

(1) The stress categories (factors), effects, and reduction strategies are listed in this table based on the research. They do not necessarily correspond to the items on the same line and are not meant to be exhaustive.

Causes, Effects, and Costs of Teacher Stress

Kyriacou and Sutcliffe’s (1977) research shows that teacher stress is borne out of the demands on the individual as a teacher. Such stress may result in anger, anxiety, and depression which are accompanied by potentially pathogenic physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate or a release of adrenocorticotrophic hormones into the bloodstream. Specifically, the effects of stress may be physical (peptic ulcers, cardiovascular diseases),psychological (depression, anxiety), or behavioral (deterioration in work performance or deterioration in interpersonal relationships).

The general environmental characteristics that seem to set the stage for anxiety and frustration are stressors such as role conflict or ambiguity (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe, 1977; Abdel-Halim, 1978), time demands (Lortie, 1975: Rudd and Wiseman, 1962; Coates and Thoresen, 1976), large class enrollments (Coates and Thoresen, 1976; Rudd and Wiseman, 1962) troublesome or disruptive students (Dunham, 1977; Lortie, 1975; Coates and Thoresen, 1976), poor human relations among staff (Rudd and Wiseman, 1962; Young, 1978), and inadequate school buildings and equipment or educational resources (Rudd and Wiseman, 1962; Coates and Thoresen, 1976).

The professional and personal concerns that seem to produce stress among teachers are teacher salaries, teacher training, the status of the profession, and feelings of inadequacy as a teacher (Rudd and Wiseman, 1962).

With respect to perceptions and appraisals of stress, a 1967 National Education Association (NEA) survey revealed that a large proportion (78%) of the teachers perceived themselves to be under moderate to considerable amounts of strain (Coates and Thoresen, 1976). Moreover, its three reports (1938, 1951, 1967) combined indicate that teachers experience considerable strain, tension and anxiety in the classroom. Such anxiety may affect thousands of teachers and potentially affect millions of students.

Teachers’ responses to stress vary widely. However, there are common reactions. Fuller’s (1969) clinical observations show that in stressful situations, such as an uneasy school atmosphere, teachers’ concerns for survival take precedence over their direct teaching activities. Dunham (1976) indicates that absenteeism, leaving teaching, sickness, and early retirement are forms of withdrawal associated with situations which become too stressful. Moreover, Carranza (1972) reports that life stresses among school teachers are positively associated with teacher absenteeism.

Consider for a moment the physical and psychological ramifications of stress. Over 50 percent of the teachers in Bruno’s (1983) study felt that teaching can be damaging to physical and mental health. Almost one in five teachers see a doctor for stress related illnesses. Moreover, teachers universally agree that their physical and mental ailments are most severe during the school year (Bruno, 1983:24). Thus, a relatively large amount of teacher absenteeism was detected in his study. The district under study provided ten fully paid sick days, and the average teacher in this sample took nearly 8, of which over 4 days were directly related to stress.

Evans, Ramsey, Johnson, and White (1986) analyzed the effect of intrinsic and extrinsic job stressors on K-12 physical education teachers. Their study compared perceived levels of stress among physical education teachers in Florida with physical illness, psychological strain, and absenteeism. They concluded that both intrinsic and extrinsic job stressors are significantly affecting K-12 teachers who experience physical illness and psychological strain on the job. Moreover, stress appears to be a significant factor among teachers who experience excessive absenteeism from work.

Schwab, Jackson and Schuler’s (1986) study adds several likely causes of burnout–a form of stress–including: powerlessness, low autonomy, low participation in decision making, little colleague social support, high professional expectations, and contingent punishment by the administrator. The effects are similar to those mentioned by previous stress researchers, including psychological strain, conflicting values and ideas, feelings of inadequacy, and physical illness.

While physical illness related to stress is costly in human terms, the economic costs associated with teacher stress in urban districts continue to increase. There is strong evidence to suggest that many substitute teacher costs are a direct result of teacher stress, strain, fatigue, and adverse working conditions (Bruno, 1983:24, 25). Thus, the costs associated with stressful teaching can be high in at least three areas: physical human cost (illness), substitute teacher cost (economic), and suffering student cost (not receiving the proper education).

Effects of Teacher Stress in the Classroom

Whether teacher stress results in differential student performance is a primary question facing instructional theorists. Teachers’ self reports from the three National Education Association (NEA) surveys (1938, 1951, 1967) mentioned earlier indicate that teachers experience a significant amount of stress. The implications are that this strain is likely to affect the teacher’s personality, and ultimately affect classroom teaching and learning. For example, poor or ineffective teaching is often attributed to personality shortcomings, such as insufficient warmth, zeal, sensitivity, or perhaps excessive authoritarianism and rigidity (Smith, 1968).

Teacher anxiety represents one of the many types of emotional maladjustments that may be observable as a part of a teacher’ s personality. As early as 1933 Hicks–in a survey of 600 teachers–found that 17 percent of them were “usually nervous” and 11 percent had suffered from a nervous breakdown. Later in 1951, Randall reported that 10 percent of teacher absences often or more days were due to “nervous conditions.”

In 1973, Doyal and Forsyth’s study revealed that the general manifest anxiety level of teachers may influence the test-anxiety level of their students. As a result they suggested that school mental health workers should be alert to those circumstances in which high anxiety on the part of the teacher may have an undesirable effect on students. Young (1976) supports this finding by adding that high anxiety on the part of teachers may have a negative effect on student performance as well as affect the manner in which the teacher handles responsibilities in the educational setting. For example, Koon (1971) reports that high-anxiety teachers use significantly less task-oriented behavior with students and that they have a tendency to provide fewer positive reinforcements for their students.

Braun (1976) postulates that the teacher can create a reality commensurate with his perceptions. For example, self-esteem increases as the appraisal of the teacher becomes personalistic (Gergen 1965). Moreover, the number of confirmations a student receives and the consistency of these confirmations influence the student’s self-image (Gergen, 1971).

Strategies for Reducing Stress Among Teachers

Teacher stress represents a profound problem which must be addressed if the quality and productivity of American education is to be maintained. Like the business world, public school systems should employ certain strategies to help their teachers reduce negative stress. Stress can be significantly reduced because its causes are often rooted, not in the permanent traits of teachers but, in specific social and situational factors within school systems.

In order to reduce stress Young (1978) suggests administrative support to relieve teachers of the frustration that gives rise to anxiety levels. Dunham (1977) explains that teachers who have to cope with disruptive students need administrative support and support from their colleagues. Lortie (1975) reports that better facilities were regarded as the change that would most increase teacher effectiveness, and more money and promotion were seen as the changes that would most increase job satisfaction. On the other hand, Abdel-Halim’s (1978) research suggests that in order to reduce the adverse consequences associated with role stress, an organization would do well to adapt a job redesign strategy to enrich the teachers’ roles.

Other strategies that might be useful in eliminating or reducing stressors include realistic job previews, task-specific selection requirements, anticipatory socialization policies, and career planning and development programs. Still others include Quality of Work Life (OWL) programs, improved teacher status, teacher conditioning (employee assistance programs), supervision and support, quality circles, joint school-parent-student problem solving, and team leadership. Pay incentives can play an important role as well in reducing teacher absenteeism, even when these incentives are not relatively large (Jacobson, 1989:284-285)

Strategies for detecting stress include stress audits and work stress inventories. Strategies for changing the perceptions of stress include cognitive restructuring and problem-solving skill development. To buffer the effects of stress, managers may use crisis-intervention counseling and social support systems. In managing employee reactions to stress, administrators may employ relaxation training, health and wellness programs, and time management (West and West, 1989:61). Finally, a general method for reducing stress can be summarized in six steps: (1) establishing clear guidelines and responsibility; (2) soliciting teacher input in decision-making; (3) providing for social support time for teachers; (4) involving teachers in the selection process; (5) allowing teacher involvement in goal setting; and (6) developing mentor relationships.

Implications for Human Resource Adminstrators in City and County School Systems

Public human resource managers and administrators are well positioned to detect the early stages of stress and to advocate system-wide sponsorship of programs which could aid individual teachers in managing stress. As noted earlier, stress is a type of person-environment fit which encompasses personal characteristics and work-environment stressors. During recruiting, human resource managers should avoid mismatches. A mismatch may result in heightened stress levels with deleterious effects on teachers, students, and school systems.

One way to reduce the gap between the personal expectations of newly recruited workers and the organizational realities they will likely encounter is to use realistic job previews (RJPs) as a recruitment tool. Similar steps should be applied in the selection process. An employer might analyze carefully the tasks involved in day-to-day operations to identify which skills are actually necessary to perform job tasks, and then use this analysis to restructure entry requirements and selection procedures.

Another approach is to change the characteristics of the job through experimentation with work teams, decentralization, participative decision making, and job enrichment. Thus, using task-specific selection requirements might increase the probability that managers will avoid the person-environment “misfit” often associated with job stress. Administrators may also consider offering in-house or referral psychological counseling services for teachers (West and West, 1989:54,55).


Stress is inevitable. Some amounts of stress may be normal as well as beneficial. Too much stress on teachers, however, has negative effects. Negative stressors can lead to adverse physical, psychological, and/or behavioral consequences. Moreover, the school system can be negatively affected by poor teacher performance, absenteeism and turnover rates (West and West, 1989:47).

There are various strategies that can be used to combat these effects. Such strategies include better employee placement, job enrichment, physical exercise, participation and involvement, skills training, mentoring, classification of roles and responsibilities, measurable objectives, and realistic job previews (RJPs). Moreover, providing opportunities through career planning and development, encouragement through social support systems, and assistance through crisis intervention counseling can combat the adverse effects of stress.

Knowledge and understanding of the relationship between teacher stress and absenteeism are crucial for implementing stress reduction strategies. Students may suffer academically, when the regular teachers are absent. Furthermore, teacher absenteeism may reduce student motivation to attend school. This may lead to an increase in student absenteeism and a decrease in academic performance (Ehrenberg, Ehrenberg, Ehrenberg, and Rees, 1989:73-74). With these in mind, personnel managers in city and county school systems are in the best position to detect the early stages of stress and to advocate organizational sponsorship of programs to aid teachers in managing it (West and West, 1989:53).

Good recruitment and selection can assist in reducing job stress as well. Effective use of accurate screening devices during selection helps insure a better fit between individual abilities and the school system’s job requirements. A mismatch between needs and abilities due to poorly conceived and executed recruitment and selection procedures may result in heightened stress levels with negative effects on teachers, students, and school systems.


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Dr. Carolyn Wiley, Visiting Associate Professor of Management, The Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland (January 2000)

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Carolyn Wiley at the following email address: carolyn.wiley@ucd.ie or cwiley2489@aol.com

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