The global pandemic has thrown educator wellbeing into sharp focus. Increasing numbers of teachers and leaders are struggling to remain engaged in their work as they experience teacher burnout symptoms of exhaustion, detachment, and ineffectiveness.
There is now a greater interest in how schools can maximise both teacher and school leader wellbeing and prevent burnout. Much of this, however, is focused on individual stress management, rather than on improving the environment in which educators work.
“Building community, by improving the quality of collegial relationships, is an aspect of wellbeing that is often overlooked.”
In my recent article Teachers are Not to Blame for Their Own Burnout, I discussed how educator burnout is primarily shaped by the systems, structures, characteristics, and culture of the school and needs to be tackled at the organisational level.
A growing body of research shows how the quality of community in schools is significantly impacting educator burnout. Yet building community, by improving the quality of collegial relationships, is an aspect of wellbeing that is often overlooked.
Interpersonal Conflict in Schools
Studies confirm that challenging relationships with other adults in school can be highly demanding and make educators more vulnerable to burnout. Research shows that interpersonal conflicts are among school leaders’ greatest workplace stressors, while a recent UK survey found that a third of teachers felt their mental health would be improved by better collegial relationships.
Strong workplace relationships have been shown to mitigate the effects of burnout. Where relationships offer support, encouragement, opportunities for collaboration, and positive communication, staff are more likely to be resilient in the face of hardship, experience better wellbeing and be more effective in their role.
“Feeling valued is a core human need, rooted in the role that group membership played in evolutionary survival.”
Many factors contribute to positive collegial relationships in schools, but they are most notably underpinned by a sense of feeling valued by others. Feeling valued is a core human need, rooted in the role that group membership played in evolutionary survival. We demonstrate that we value others by recognising their contribution, showing them respect, and building trust and psychological safety. This can be achieved by conducting our day-to-day interactions with civility.
The Importance of Civil Interactions
From both my own experience as a school leader and from my research, I know how the demands of working in a highly emotional, high-pressure environment can lead to uncivil behaviour among colleagues, which can severely damage collegial relationships.
Uncivil behaviour can take many forms, including ignoring colleagues, gossiping, discounting a colleague’s contribution, sabotaging another’s efforts, or poor etiquette in verbal and written communication. It may also involve more serious negative behaviour, such as abusive language, bullying, intimidation, and discrimination.
Workplace incivility can lead to a range of negative emotions and behaviours, including fear, sadness, guilt, hostility, and a desire for retaliation, which can perpetuate further incivility.
In workplaces where poor behaviour is prevalent, the norms for mutual respect have often been abandoned and a culture of incivility has become established. This can lead to spirals of incivility, where those who experience or witness poor behaviour become more likely to engage in the poor treatment of others.
“Workplace incivility can lead to fear, sadness, guilt, hostility and a desire for retaliation.”
While isolated acts of disrespect may seem innocuous, such acts can be highly contagious and can spread distrust and dissatisfaction. Even micro-level negative behaviours can impact the health and happiness of individuals.
Conditions that Foster Incivility
Multiple studies show that incivility is closely linked to levels of workplace stress, with the highest levels of poor behaviour occurring in the most stressful environments. Incivility is also more likely to occur when colleagues are encouraged to pursue individualism at the expense of team goals and where workers fail to practice self-restraint or feel they will not be held accountable for their behaviour.
It is also more prevalent where individuals experience injustice or perceive they have been treated unfairly. Perceptions of injustice may hinge on issues of pay, autonomy, and other working conditions. They can also be precipitated when an employee senses unequal treatment of colleagues by leaders. Studies highlight how workers who feel colleagues are treated better by leaders, are more likely to experience high levels of team conflict and have poor wellbeing.
“While isolated acts of disrespect may seem innocuous, such acts can be highly contagious and can spread distrust and dissatisfaction.”
A culture of workplace civility, involves colleagues demonstrating a personal interest in each other, valuing difference, working cooperatively, and facilitating fair resolution of conflicts. High levels of workplace civility have been shown to bring considerable benefits, protecting employees from the negative impact of work demands, improving mental health and reducing burnout. Workplace civility also builds greater organisational commitment, increases job satisfaction, and improves teacher retention.
Creating a Culture of Workplace Civility
So how can schools create a culture of workplace civility to harness the potential of collegial relationships and maximise wellbeing for all educators? It is important to remember that humans are hardwired for negativity and that continuous negative thinking and behaviour forges stronger neural pathways in the brain that perpetuates this negativity. A culture of civility is unlikely to happen without an intentional commitment and a clear plan to embed civil interactions in our daily work.
School leaders play a key role in not only modelling civility but also reducing the risk factors that lead to workplace incivility. This begins by tackling the stress brought about by heavy workloads, addressing factors that may lead to a sense of injustice, and creating a collaborative environment that brings increased educator autonomy and emphasises teamwork over individual success. By creating the right environment, the likelihood of incivility flourishing can be considerably reduced.
Fostering positive collegial relationships is, however, the responsibility of all staff and a culture of civility can only thrive if it is the product of a genuinely collaborative process, involving colleagues at all levels. This involves working together to develop a common understanding and language around civility, agreeing expectations, and establishing systems to hold each other accountable.
“A culture of civility can only thrive if it is the product of a genuinely collaborative process.”
There are many ways in which this can be done. One approach, Civility, Respect and Engagement in the Workplace (CREW), provides a framework to develop interventions in response to the needs of the individual workplace. The programme is focused on discussing the importance of civility and determining customised interventions, which may include, establishing behavioural norms, clarifying procedures for accountability, developing policies to address inclusion and diversity, and providing training in conflict management and communication skills.
Many of the staff wellbeing initiatives currently implemented by schools, while well-meaning, are likely to have minimal impact, if they fail to get to the heart of what causes educator stress and precipitates burnout. Improving the quality of collegial relationships by fostering civility, while not a quick or easy fix, is an evidence-based approach to not only maximise wellbeing and reduce burnout but to also increase school effectiveness.