Addressing Workaholism in Schools

In education there is a long-standing belief:


The more hours employees work, the better they are at their job.


Administrators who work long hours are hailed as "dedicated to their job."

Teachers who never leave school are praised for their "commitment to kids."

Staff who work through lunch are commended for their "tireless work ethic."


Educational norms do us no favors.


School boards expect administrators to be visible at every evening event.

Administrators expect teachers to grade work outside of contract hours.

Athletic directors tell staff to volunteer if they want an all-sport activity pass.


Ironically, many educators enjoy the "workaholic" title.


In meetings, administrators argue over who has the busier nighttime schedule.

In faculty lounges, teachers debate who spends more hours grading papers.

On social media, staff eagerly post "Finishing work, so exhausted!" photos at 10pm.


So herein lies the question: Does working more hours result in greater productivity?


According to the CDC, people who routinely work extended and overtime hours are less productive than those who work 40 hours workweeks. Work more than 50 hours - as educators report they do - and efficiency worsens. Employees who work 50 hours only produce about 37 hours of useful work. At 55 hours, those numbers drop to almost 30.


Leaders who do not understand this phenomenon and ignore the warning signs in their workplace continue to perpetuate the ongoing cycle of educator burnout. By simply maintaining the status quo, leaders are embracing the workaholic narrative in our schools.


Alternatively, leaders who understand the correlation between staff wellbeing and job performance must consistently remind employees burnout is not acceptable. Only after leaders consistently communicate the dangers of workaholism and model a healthy work-life balance will staff feel empowered to stand up to conventional thinking.

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One aspect leaders must address is after-hours communication.


A large number of educators believe they need to constantly be attached to their phone in case "something comes up at work." While there will be times when true emergencies arise, generally these matters can wait until the following day.


School leaders cannot sit back and assume staff understand communication at night and during weekends is unnecessary. Instead, leaders must actively remind employees they have permission to disconnect.


One powerful method for reinforcing work-life balance is by facilitating a conversation about communication expectations. When employees have an opportunity to discuss timelines for responding to emails, texts, and phone calls, they realize not every communication needs an immediate response. The end result of the discussion is a communication protocol - an agreed-upon timeline for responding to various modes of communication.


Our district leadership team - made up of administrators and directors - revisits our communication protocol every few months. Our procedures read as follows:


Email = respond within 48 hours

Text = respond that day

Call with voicemail or follow-up text = respond ASAP

Call without voicemail or follow-up text = respond as needed

Email rules do not apply to weekends


Besides giving staff permission to disengage from their phone, this exercise allows teammates to hold each-other accountable. Unfortunately, administrators are often some of the worst communicators. Some bosses are way too overbearing and expect communication at all hours ... while others are incredibly hard to get ahold of, even during emergencies. The communication protocol holds all parties accountable to reasonable communication standards.


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Beyond developing a communication protocol, there are several other ideas leaders can implement to fight the workaholism culture in schools:


Honor the Contract: Staff should not be given work that cannot be done during contracted hours. When school leaders implement new initiatives, they must allocate time for staff to complete work during contracted hours as opposed to assigning "home" work.


Trade Time: There will be occasions when staff have projects to complete or deadlines to make that will result in them working extra hours. Leaders should notice these occurrences and give staff the opportunity to leave work early or come in late to compensate for the additional effort.


Eat Lunch: One of the most obvious "badge of honor" activities in education is skipping lunch. Many school staff are notorious for working through lunch because they have "way too much work to do." Ironically, eating a healthy lunch results in skyrocketing afternoon productivity.


Use Days: School leaders have a habit of making staff feel bad for taking personal days. Rather than immediately think about all the drawbacks of an employee being gone, bosses should enthusiastically respond to requests and make employees feel good about taking time off.


Model: Leaders become their own worst enemies when they encourage staff to take time off but then never leave work themselves. Leaders: use vacation days and stay home when you're sick. If you really feel compelled to work, fine; just do it from somewhere other than the office.


Be Careful: Management should be weary of attendance incentives. Although staff attendance and sub shortages are a major concern in many districts, placing too much emphasis on absenteeism will result in staff feeling like they can't miss any time.


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You may be wondering, "What if I enjoy work and love working extra hours?"


Some staff find great satisfaction in doing their job at high levels. These high performers not only produce great work outcomes, they also do an excellent job balancing life outside of work. There is nothing wrong with letting these employees do their thing.


However, be very careful about people who say they don't mind putting in extra work. Oftentimes these employees insist they like the work but then manage to contradict those statements.


These employees are placed into four categories:


The Show Off: These employees love to brag hours they work. They constantly remind co-workers in person and on social media about how many hours they complete.


The Complainer: These workers say they love putting in extra work ... but then manage to find ways to complain about how much is on their plate. You can't have it both ways.


The Loafer: These people never leave work. These people also never get anything done. They may not show off or complain, but their productivity levels do not match their hours worked.


The Avoider: These staff say they love putting in extra work but they don't appear happy or healthy. Often, these employees kill time at work to avoid issues at home.


In all four cases, leaders must have the courage to address these individuals. Left unchecked, these employees make colleagues feel inadequate for "only" working 40-hour weeks.


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Leaders who understand the correlation between staff wellbeing and job performance must consistently remind employees that it's ok to disconnect from work. When school leaders regularly communicate the dangers of burnout and give staff permission to maintain a healthy work-life balance, employees will feel empowered to reject the workaholic "badge of honor."

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