November 29, 2008

Death March

Recent research suggests that a trend toward working more hours continues, with men working almost 50 hours a week and women working nearly 44 hours. This causes productivity problems for employees. In a Families and Work Institute survey, 2/3 of the respondents indicated they didn't have enough time with their children, and almost that many felt that they were not able to spend enough time with their spouses. More than half of the respondents felt they needed more time for themselves and were overworked in the last three months. The same employees got less sleep and experienced higher levels of stress. One third of the survey's respondents report they often lack enough energy to do things with their families after work.

The study concludes thusly:

Of particular concern are the negative spillover effects that demanding and hectic jobs can have on the quality of workers' personal lives and well being. This spillover is reflected in high stress, poor coping, bad moods, and insufficient time and energy for people who are personally important, creating problems that, in turn, spill over into work and impair job performance.

It's very common for business professionals to work more than 40 hours per week. Software business experts Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood talk about the implications of this in their Stack Overflow podcast:

The Death March book by Ed Yourdon talks about this idea that yeah, you can make programmers work 80 hour weeks, and they will get twice as much done as they did in their 40 hour weeks, but you're incurring debt. And you're going to pay back that debt in triple in terms of just sort of burnout and that kind of stuff. So, you can definitely, if you want to, spend a week, if there's really a deadline, you want to make everybody work 80 hours and get the thing done, that's fine, but the week after that, you're going to get nothing done.

Teachers, though, have deadlines every day. Every day, we have classrooms full of kids who are expecting us to have a top-notch education prepared for them. Most of us write our lessons and grade assignments on our own time after school. Unlike in business, where deadlines are periodic, we face new deadlines every day.

We end up working overtime to meet this week's deadlines, but we don't get a break the next week like Atwood and Spolsky suggest business professionals should. Next week, we have more papers to grade and more lessons to plan. We do get a ten week break during the summer, but the nine months of constant deadlines can be very stressful.

One thing that leads to burnout among business professionals is the situation where employees are given tasks but not the tools they need (including time) to complete those tasks. This situation seems to be quite common in education. It's not that we don't love our jobs. It's not that we don't like the kids. But we're only human, and we have limitations. Many of us spend our evenings and weekends working, especially first year teachers.

I see a tradeoff here. We need to work hard enough to produce a top quality education for our students, but not too hard to completely burn out. Lazy teachers with poorly prepared lesson plans don't help kids. But, teachers who have meticulous and stellar curricula but who are burnt out don't help kids either. It's a classic design tradeoff.

Source: Galinsky, Kim, & Bond. Feeling overworked: When work becomes too much. Families and Work Institute, 2001.


Anonymous said...

True that! I've been trying to teach high school English in Texas for the past 10 years. More and more demands are made on teacher time:
1. Before and after-school tutorials--whichever works best for the individual student--mean less time to plan, grade, collaborate.
2. Online availability of grades-Students and parents and administrators expect test grades to be posted by the end of the day. Toss out those essay questions! "Instantaneous and valuable feedback is our motto here in Utopia!"
3. Parent notification each time an eighteen year-old sleeps in class, fails a test or even forgets to turn in a homework assignment! If you're not "pro-active" in parent communication, everything winds up being your fault.
4. Up-to-the-minute, "research-based" training (yeah, I believe this shit marketed to districts as the latest and the greatest has been subjected to the most rigorous scientific review)that eats into our planning, grading, sleeping, and family time.
5. Lesson adaptation and staffing/parent meetings for special ed and ESOL students who are regular classes but really don't have the skills to be. But who have to pass. If they fail, it's because the teacher did not follow the modifications.

It all boils down to the philosophy that if a student fails a class and/or a standardized test, it's the teacher's fault because "All students want to succeed!"

What have we learned today, class?
1. Don't choose the teaching "profession" because you will be treated like you have no brain and no rights by students, administrators, public officials, the public at large, parents, and, if you work in Texas at least, the state.
2. Don't have children unless you can afford to live in a very exclusive community or send them to public school.
3. If you do have kids, start by showing them where China and India are located on the globe.

Joel said...

Ha ha - totally agree with the China / India bit. I lost my first internship due to offshoring!