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Social engagement risk factor for teachers


One out of ten teachers in Sweden suffers from stress-related exhaustion, a 50 percent higher percentage than in other professional groups.

“Teachers with a strong social consciousness who are deeply involved in pupils and colleagues are the most vulnerable ones,” says Ola Nordhall, lecturer in psychology and doctoral student within occupational health at the University of Gävle.

Lärare med elever

In his research, Ola Nordhall has studied 800 teachers and his findings show that the most vulnerable teachers are those who apart from their regular workload are deeply involved in their pupils and colleagues and devote a lot of their free time to them. These teachers have a great social engagement and take care of their colleagues, give social support to their pupils and engage in contacts with parents outside working hours.

Ola Nordhall

Ola Nordhall

Ola Nordhall points out that this engagement easily can change into “over-engagement,” leading to stress and, in the long run, to burnout symptoms.

“It is like a slope; you don’t notice that the speed is accelerating and that your work effort is increasing. It’s fun, it’s more fun and you do more and more,” Ola Nordhall explains.

It is positive, but with a downside

Many previous studies have shown that this type if engagement has positive consequences. It creates added value and benefits colleagues as well as the organisation as whole.

“This is true, but there is a downside, and this can affect the individual teacher who empties his- or herself out.”

This type of extra work can be experienced as a requirement that becomes a burden. The individual teacher may think that he or she is expected to do this, even if it is not spelled out.

“I myself have worked as an upper secondary school teacher for eight years and I recognise these expectations that you are supposed to support colleagues, stay at work after hours and take care of pupils who are not coping.”

The teacher’s mission is to be a pedagogue

Ola Nordhall states that the teacher’s mission is to be a pedagogue, but the teacher’s role has grown during the last 20-30 years as needs have increased.

“The facts that such extra work benefits the school and that it lies in the borderland between formal and informal work make it hard to do something about.”

It is vital that school leaders communicate their expectations in work descriptions; social work should not be part of a teacher’s formal work description. It should focus on pedagogical work, on teaching and on knowledge.

“In this way, teachers can devote their time to professional teaching and don’t need have to spend so much time being social workers, counsellors or parents.

More support staff in schools

Ola Nordhall calls for the presence of a school psychology or a counsellor at schools; they should be clearly visible and accessible. Having worked at schools where support staff could handle social work and focus especially on pupils with special needs, Ola can say that it can work very well, but usually, there is no such support. For this reason, we end up in with exhausted teachers, as teachers tend to be engaged and empathic.

“Teachers are a vulnerable group, and here is a partial explanation as to why teacher’s mental health is disproportionally poorer than in many other professional groups,” Ola Nordhall concludes.


Ola Nordhall, lecturer in psychology and doctoral student within occupational health at the University of Gävle
Phone: 026-64 88 43
E-mail: Ola.Nordhall@hig.se

Text: Douglas Öhrbom
Photo Ola Nordhall: Anna Sällberg

Published by: Douglas Öhrbom Page responsible: Anders Munck Updated: 2020-09-16
Högskolan i Gävle
Box 801 76 GÄVLE
026-64 85 00 (växel)