Could job crafting help teachers manage work stress?

Trish Riley
Trish Riley

Research indicates ‘job crafting’ can help teachers manage work stress

About three quarters of Australian teachers experience substantial stress in a typical work week, according to a 2021 survey. Another 2019 Australian study showed more than half suffer from anxiety, and about one in five meet the criteria for moderate to severe depression.

It’s not surprising, then, that increasing numbers of teachers are leaving the profession. Meanwhile, enrolments for education degrees have been declining.

Teachers in Australia – and around the world – are under-resourced and burning out. It’s a reality that reinforces the urgent need for policy initiatives to improve the working conditions for teachers. But can anything else be done?

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Independent research reveals that one way teachers may be able to take more control over their wellbeing at work is by ‘job crafting’.

What is job crafting?

Job crafting is about making noticeable changes to your job to make it more meaningful and more engaging. These changes can be significant or small and spring from the initiative of the individual employee.

The idea behind job crafting is that is that employees play an active role in shaping their job, so it more closely aligns with what they value and how they perceive themselves.

Job crafting emerged in management research in 2001 and has since been studied in a range of occupations. There are at least three different ways employees can craft their work: 

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  • Task crafting is about changing the number, scope, sequence, or types of tasks in a job
  • Relational crafting is about making changes to how you relate to people at work, and
  • Cognitive crafting refers to changing how you interpret or think about the work. 

Studies also show that, when employees are trained to use job crafting strategies, they show increased performance and work engagement.

The power of job crafting for teachers

In 2022, a comprehensive series of in-depth interviews was conducted with teachers across all levels throughout Australia about if, and how they used job crafting. Most established teachers advised that they used job crafting in multiple ways, including by modifying the tasks they did with students and by involving other teachers in their classes.

One primary school teacher spoke about how he combined his hobby of playing cards with his maths lessons.

I bring a lot of those card games into class with the kids, and we discover the maths in the games. I think they can definitely sense my passion for the games and that makes them more excited. I’ve had quite a few parents say, ‘My child now loves maths because of the way you play the games,’ which is really nice.

Another primary school teacher spoke of how they emphasised their love of reading in their teaching – and sought out new ways to read with their students through collaborating with other teachers. 

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Just because I love reading books, after lunch we might read a book, or go to another [teacher’s] class and read a book with their kids, and [that teacher] will come to mine. It means I get to meet new kids and they’ve got someone different in front of them, and my kids also have someone different in front of them.

A secondary teacher provided another example of how they work with colleagues during the day, to change classroom dynamics: 

I love saying to the other teachers, ‘Hey, do you want to drop into my class to see how I’m teaching … I think you’ll like it’ or ‘This kid misses you; he hasn’t seen you in ages, do you want to swing by?’ It’s so nice to have other adults in the room. And [for] teachers that you have good relationships with, you can then model what a healthy relationship looks like to the kids.

Teachers help human beings grow

Other teachers spoke of how they used cognitive crafting by expanding their ideas of what they consider to be the role of a teacher. As one primary teacher noted:

I see myself as helping human beings grow rather than teaching academic knowledge.

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A secondary teacher also spoke of the importance of thinking beyond the daily “grind” of their job: 

I think teachers can, especially when they’ve been teaching for a while, get into a bit of a rut. And it’s just that they see teaching as delivering content. I don’t see it that way. To me, teaching is all about building relationships with my students and using the content as a vehicle to build those relationships and to hopefully get them to where they need to be in later life.

Cognitive strategies such as this are key to connecting the job to a larger purpose. This gives work more meaning, which is essential for employee wellbeing.

Effective job crafting

While conducting the research, the interviewees also spoke of things that helped and hindered their job crafting: 

  • Too many time pressures and administrative burdens made it difficult to try new approaches.
  • Lack of time, rigid systems, and a lack of autonomy within their schools made it difficult to be creative. 

One secondary teacher noted:

If you’ve been teaching for a while, or even if you’re a grad teacher, you spend a lot of time just ensuring the curriculum is met. To have the energy to think about changing things up, even if it is for the better, is difficult.

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Teachers said they needed time to be able to reflect on their work. They also said they needed school leaders to support their ideas, so they felt safe and free to take risks.

One primary teacher noted how many teachers are fearful of being judged at work. 

We preach that mistakes, and risk-taking with our kids is okay, but we don’t embody that as a workforce. Staff need to be neat and ordered and to tick the right boxes. I think that whole idea of being able to take risks, and challenging educational philosophies, would allow people to be more adventurous in that space.

Job crafting works, but we need to do more

Ultimately, the research shows that teachers are using job crafting to make their jobs more manageable, more enjoyable and more effective. It also reveals that more support is required. The teachers who contributed to the research said that the individual school environment (and management) either supports these different approaches – or makes it too difficult to try.

Teacher wellbeing is a shared responsibility

While job crafting has significant potential to help teachers in stressful jobs, improving teacher wellbeing is a shared responsibility. And it is up to schools, government and the broader community to better support the important work teachers do. 

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Trish Riley is a Zimbabwean-born writer and communications specialist. With experience in journalism, and public relations, Trish has been developer and editor of several trade publications and regularly contributes articles for diverse sectors including aged care, animal care, construction and education.