The effects of occupational stress and management strategies applied among school educators in the North West province of South Africa

Title: The effects of occupational stress and management strategies applied among school educators in the North West province of South Africa

First author: Dr Noorullah Shaikhnag –

Id 0000-0002 1423 7696

Senior lecturer –Deputy Director, North West University, Faculty ofEducation- Mahikeng campus

B Com (UDW-UKZN), BEd, MED, PhD (Educational Psychology, NWU)

Co-author: Dr Shantha Naidoo –


North-West University, South Africa: Potchefstroom, North West, ZA

Lecturer: Life Orientation, Sub Area Leader: Edu-HRight (Bio-Psychosocial Perspectives)

MED (Learner Support), PhD (Educational Leadership and Management, UJ).

Co-author: Prof Anna-Marie Pelser


Research Professor, North-West University, Faculty of Economic and Financial Sciences- Entity Director – GIFT, Mahikeng Campus.

HED (Home Economics, PU for CHE), B Com (UNISA), B Com Hons (PU for   CHE), M Com (Industrial Psychology, NWU), PhD (Education Management,


Premi Govender – Independent registered psychologist

Corresponding author: Prof A.M.F. Pelser –

Ensovoort, volume 43 (2022), number 3: 2


Like many other professions, teacher occupational stress is a phenomenon that is increasing and is progressively becoming a stressful occupation as teachers have to shoulder multiple roles and responsibilities such as teaching, counseling, guiding and directing learners, keeping in mind the deadlines imposed on them. The overall purpose of this study was to investigate occupational stress among school teachers of one Area Office in the North West Province. The main objectives were to determine the nature and scope of teacher occupational stress, the causes, effects, and management strategies which could be applied by teachers to manage and curb occupational stress. The theoretical framework of this study is underpinned by the Lazarus Transactional model and the Person-Environment Fit model both which conceptualize stress as a result of a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as exceeding his or her resources to cope with stressors and endangering his or her well-being.  In this study, the research was vested in a post-positivist research paradigm, based on careful observation and measurement of the objective reality that exists. A survey research approach was used. Quantitative data was collected using questionnaires. The Area Office used in this study comprises of 26 (N=26) Primary Schools with 1800 teachers in 4 different Clusters. For this study one cluster was sampled for data collection. The sample consisted of ten (n=10) primary schools with 130 teachers. All 10 (ten) schools were used for data collection, but only 120 (n=120) teachers, ten (10) from each school, including one Principal or Deputy and one H.O.D (Head of Department), were randomly selected for data collection. The other 10 were used for sampling.

The following findings regarding the nature and scope of occupational stress among  school educators were evident: Teachers cannot cope with the demands of their jobs; according to this study, nine (9) out of ten (10) teachers over the age of 35 are on hypertension medication and others don’t even know they have hypertension. Some of the factors causing occupational stress amongst teachers and have great impact include: Work overload, inadequate salaries, learner indiscipline, lack of resources, rapid curriculum changes and student misbehavior which was generally regarded as the main sources of occupational stress.

KEYWORDS:  Occupational stress, Stress, Teacher/Educator, Learner, HOD (Head of Department), Management strategies

Introduction and background

Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope. Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances, but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes. There is often confusion between pressure or challenge and stress, hence occasionally, this is used to excuse bad management practice (World Health Organisation, 2020).

Research findings show that the most stressful type of work is that which values excessive demands and pressures that are not matched to workers’ knowledge and abilities, where there is little opportunity to exercise any choice or control, and where there is little support from others, hence every working environment has a degree of stress though it may vary from individual to individual and could be of varying durations. Stress as a phenomenon has been researched in various professions and the teaching profession is no exception (Jerayaj, 2013:64). Stress has become a norm in our daily lives, hence it has become a costly affair which we have to deal with on a daily basis (Chaly, Anand, Reddy, Nijesh & Srinidhi, 2014:440). Stress thus, is the reaction of the body and mind to events which become a threat or a challenge to people. Many people experience this when demands are made on their body and mind by events, situations and people. These challenges can sometimes be on a daily basis making it unbearable to those who experience it which can lead either to a positive or negative impact in their lives (Greeshma, Priya, Aswathy & Janani, 2018). Teaching therefore is widely recognized to be a stressful occupation, characterized by numerous and varied challenges: administrative burdens, long hours, classroom management difficulties, and lack of autonomy, to name but a few (McCarthy, 2019). Teachers are isolated from colleagues for much of the day, spending less than 5% of their work time collaborating with peers (Scholastic & the Gates Foundation, 2012). Further, teachers face significant social and political scrutiny as to how they do their jobs (Goldstein, 2014).

The implication of this is that teaching is no longer only hard work, but has become a very stressful profession. Teachers face numerous challenges such as the diverse needs of learners and performance requirements which often leads to extreme pressure, stress and conflict, hence unable to handle behavioral and academic matters among their learners (Dias-Lacy & Guirguis, 2017). Thus, Kumar, Wani and Parrey (2013:934) posit that stress can be explained in terms of its physical, physiological and emotional effects on a person. Stress is an unpleasant experience that can lead to depression, causing tension that can have serious consequences for the healthy functioning of the individual as well as for the institution which the person serves. Teaching can be a fulfilling, prestigious profession, but it can also bring confusion and frustration, hence many educators perceive their profession as stressful (Mapfumo & Chitsiko, 2012:155). Consequently, occupational stress can be regarded as an unavoidable event in the lives of human beings; it is a psychophysical condition which could have serious implications on how productive and effective a teacher is (Rabha, 2017:2-3).

The teaching profession is involved with human minds; it is therefore necessary for teachers to be mentally stable since they are responsible for producing quality future learners (Chaly et al., 2014:441). A teacher with moderate stress levels can teach effectively in the classroom and provide good quality education, unlike a stressful teacher who will be directly or indirectly liable to pass on that stress to students and affect their future. Although stress cannot be completely eliminated, a sincere effort should be made to manage and cope with it to a satisfactory level (Nagra, 2013:14). When people are placed in demanding situations which they perceive to be stressful, they should be motivated to do something about it by employing a problem-solving strategy, aiming to either remove the source of stress or diminish the discomfort experienced (Denhere, Ngobeli & Kutame, 2010:170). Consequently, to manage occupational stress effectively, it is important to identify the psychological response called “coping mechanisms”; these mechanisms may either eliminate the stress or at least offset stress in schools and make the tolerance of the demanding situation easier (Waltz, 2016). Some of these techniques include: listening to music, focus on solving the problem, make an analysis of and plan future activities, socializing as well as a fair and unbiased exposition of the situation at hand. People who display high levels of stress use strategies of distancing and passivity. However, research has shown that teachers who cope well with stress prefer to make use of active mechanisms instead of being passive (Kebbi & Al-Hroub, 2018).  Coping can thus be described as actions taken by an individual such as thoughts and behaviours which are marshalled to deal with the internal and external stressful stimuli facing them (Algorani & Gupta, 2020). As the work of a teacher is physically and psychologically challenging, much effort is required to effectively manage the classroom on a daily basis. Dealing with multifarious learners, educating them and, shaping them to become highly productive is not an easy task (Kaur, 2011:151); it is therefore evident that conditions such as heavy workloads, poor remuneration, nepotism, corruption, poor management and employee relationships are the key factors that lead to teacher dissatisfaction and stress (Hasan, 2014:11-14). In order to reduce some of these challenges it is imperative to make use of small groups, conducted in the schools, which usually help in providing space for teachers to support each other and overcome the professional isolation they sometimes experience (Eyal, Bauer, Playfair, & McCarthy, 2019).

Problem statement

 Reddy and Anuradha, (2013:9), alluded that stress at work has become prominent resulting from increasingly divergent work demands; the profession of teaching has a very prestigious place in all professions; teachers are viewed as dispensers of knowledge, facilitators or managers who work in a socially isolated environment surrounded by hostile views and sometimes threats of physical abuse. At a personal level, teaching-related stress can affect a teacher’s health, well-being and performance which from an organizational perspective, could lead to unproductive employee behavior such as alienation, apathy, absenteeism and lack of autonomy (Allegreto & Mishel, 2016; Nagra, 2013:13). Stress, related to work continues to be problematic in many institutions, hence become highly debatable among researchers. Work-related stress could affect productivity in a negative way, leading to poor employee performance, higher absenteeism reduced turnover and teachers wanting to leave the profession due to poor salaries and high stress levels (PDK International, 2019).

In his study, Matla (2014:3) observed that new democratic South Africa had a number of education ministers who introduced the new curriculum, leaving the educator stressed and, confused due to lack of proper training, consequently learners suffered as teachers concentrated on other work demands. All these demands meant that teachers were overwhelmed, leading to occupational stress and burnout, ultimately having an effect on their well-being. Thus, in order to manage stress, one needs to identify its causes from time to time so that they could be addressed (Matla, 2014:5). Teaching like many other professions is progressively becoming a stressful occupation, as teachers have to shoulder multiple roles and responsibilities, keeping in mind the deadlines (Nagra, 2013:13). A number of studies have also attested to the fact that South African teachers work under very stressful circumstances (Ngidi & Sibaya, 2002:7).

This study aims to make teachers aware of the stressors, their effects on their well-being and assisting them in how to tackle and reflect on the onset of their stress.

The research also aims to help the school management to understand their role in identifying the stressed teachers, the stressors and assisting them with ways to manage and deal with their stress and to apply policies that could regulate learners’ behavior. Finally, this study aims to impart knowledge and add value to existing literature on teacher-occupational stress among primary school teachers.

Theoretical framework

Nature and scope of occupational stress

Stress is slowly but surely making its way into becoming an important feature in the teaching profession. The effect it has on educator performance and emotional well-being is quite striking (Bongo & Casta, 2017). It has been a source of extreme interest and, researchers have indicated that it is process oriented as well as transactional, encompassing appraisals, coping and emotions. Therefore, stress can be defined as the relationship between man and the environment that is appraised as taxing or exceeding their coping resources (Du Plessis, 2020). Consequently, occupational stress can be prevalent when there is a discrepancy between the demands of the environment and an individual’s ability to carry out and complete these demands. Work stress assists in improving performance up to a point, but then slowly becomes impaired. Teaching thus has become a stress-related occupation and a highly demanding profession with teachers often managing complicated social issues within the classroom (Wettstein, Kuhne, Tschacher & La Marca, 2020). Occupational stress continues to be problematic among teachers in our educational system (Matla, 2014:15). It has become the main point of discussion due to the drastic changes that have taken place in our society over the last decade or two (Kaur, 2011:151). Reddy and Anuradha (2013:9) believed that stress at work occurs as a result of greater demands which has become a norm in most places of work. Teachers irrespective of the level they teach at, are constantly exposed to increased levels of stress, it is an event which cannot be avoided especially in the world we live in, which is fast becoming highly industrialised and urbanized. The teaching profession can be regarded as extremely stressful, a condition which ultimately has an impact on productivity, effectiveness, personal health and quality of work, though the factors or stressors may differ from person to person (Jeyaraj, 2013:64; Rabha, 2017:2-3). Despite all this, teaching can be a highly satisfying and rewarding profession, but can also lead to teachers becoming perplexed and disconcerted especially the novice teachers who are fresh from universities, or student teachers who enter a field in which the older teachers are highly stressed (Mapfumo & Chitsiko, 2012:6). It has been found that differences among individuals with regard to perceptions and reaction to stress brings about a fairly large variation and intensification of physical symptoms. Fatigue, insomnia, headaches, weight loss and even skin rash is not uncommon to for people who react to stress. However, more severe characteristics such as high blood pressure, heart related problems, ulcers, short breath and colitis may require medical attention (Derrow, 2018). Research by Ngidi and Sibaya, (2012:13) indicated that 444 teachers in the 24 schools that took part, experienced high level of stress from work related factors, such as: time pressure, poor working conditions, rapid curriculum changes, inadequate teaching resources and learner misbehavior.

Causes of teacher occupational stress

The phenomena that lead to stress are called stressors (Matla, 2014:16); all these stressors are job-related in that a teacher experiences them while working in an institution and is often not sure how to deal with them (Nagra, 2013:13). While work-related stress can be attributed to excessive or too little work, pressure to meet deadlines, fatigue resulting from the environment due to physical exertion and tension, managing this stress and using it to become more creative and move faster towards attaining goals has been embedded in organisations recently (Amiri, 2019). Studies indicate that, not only is our education system in a crisis from a shortage of teachers, but year after year a sizeable number of highly competent teachers leave their profession in search of better prospects (Miya, 2016:24). This is further exacerbated by curriculum changes with Outcome Based Education (OBE) and continuous assessment of learners’ performance having brought about more responsibilities for teachers (Ngidi & Sibaya 2002:7). Other aspects such as inclusive education, the outlawing of corporal punishment, additional mediums of instruction, lack of discipline, learner social problems, lack of motivation among learners and teachers, a large teacher-learner ratio, overcrowded classrooms, redeployment, time pressure, the threat of redundancy, inadequate salaries and the rapid curriculum changes are often regarded as some of the more conspicuous factors leading to the increase in occupational stress among teachers (Lopes & Oliveira, 2017:22; Shaikhnag, Assan & Loate 2015:1-2; Vazi, Ruiter, Van den Borne, Martin, Dumont & Reddy, 2013:3). The implication of this is that teachers who endure long working hours, experience fatigue which has a negative impact on learner quality, which ultimately affects the education system as a whole (Tyagi & Dhar, 2014). Furthermore, the effects of poor resources, overburdened teachers and school principals as well as untreated stressors can be devastating, leading to high blood pressure, severe migraine, heart disease, poor immune system and ultimately death (Ekundayo & Kolawole, 2015: 311:315). It may appear as if nothing can be done about one’s stress level; however, it must be understood that a person has more control than he/she thinks. The foundation of stress management lies in the modest realisation that every person is in control of his/her life; stress being an intricate phenomenon, it is affected by various factors. There is thus no single method of dealing with the stressful events in life; rather, it is a process of fathoming what works best for a person at the time of stress.  The coping strategies will therefore guide the individual to work through both everyday stress as well as crisis stressors (Robinson, Smith & Segal, 2018:2-6).

Measures applied to reduce stress and the support system

The coping strategies should enable the individual to work through both everyday stress and crisis stressors.  Cognitive behavioral approaches are effective in dealing with stressful conditions. Mindfulness-based approaches have been recently highlighted as interventions for managing stress (Mahakud, Sharma & Gangai, 2013:11). This is further enhanced by a study conducted by Habibi (2015:22) on stress-management skills training which had a major effect on increasing academic life as well as vitality and psychological wellness. Coping with stress requires teaching and learning of appropriate stress-management skills. In other words, during stress, persons must be aware of the important coping skills to reduce the impact of stress. Consequently, the intervention of stress management will result in positive feelings about oneself, as well as increasing the self-confidence of the individuals (Qadiri-Bahramabadi & Mikaeli-Manee, 2015:64-65). In view of this, it would be best to manage occupational stress meaningfully, by using two types of strategies namely approach (active) and evasive (disengagement) mechanisms (Zimmer- Gembeck & Skinner, 2016:16).

Approach strategies involve cognitive and behavioral methods aimed at making an active response to the stressor by directly changing the problem or the negative emotions associated with it, while evasive strategies are those which involve evading the stressful situation such as distraction, denial and wishful thinking. Consequently, it can be stated that approach strategies are based on good academic, physical and psychological adjustment (Gustems-Carnicer, Calderon & Calderon-Garrido, 2019:21; Sayed & Seiffge-Krenke, 2015:56-57). It can therefore be said that coping mechanisms refer to those mechanisms an individual applies to enable him or her to handle stressors more effectively and to recover faster after being exposed to stressors (Barkhuizen & Rothman, 2008:322). Consequently, by implementing adequate preventive coping resources, teachers will be able to reduce the number of events they interpreted as stress threats, thus minimizing or eliminating the stress-response triggers (O Bryan, 2019:36).

Effects of stress in the occupational, physical and psychological domains

Stress is considered as an involuntary response to a dangerous situation; and if our brain is incapable of handling the situation then the body will produce hormones which are required to fight or flee the situation (Kaur, 2011:158). Occupational stress has a tremendous effect on an organization’s effectiveness and affects productivity on many fronts (Khoza, Tiriyo, Ritacco & Lowies, 2014:6). This means that it is necessary to include measures which are both negative and positive since wellness is not simply the absence of a negative element, but something more (MacIntyre, Ross, Talbot, Mercer, Gregersem & Banga, 2019:24).

Symptoms and impact of stress on teachers’ personal and physical life

Symptoms of stress take a long time to erupt and, once they do, they not only affect the individual concerned, but also the co-workers through strained interpersonal relations and ultimately affect the students’ education which forms the very core for the success of the education department (Jeyaraj, 2013:64), hence if someone is able to identify their stress symptoms, it will help to improve their overall situation and bring a change in productivity. Consequently it is imperative to take steps to control it before it becomes chronic. (Caporuscio, 2020:3-4; Felman, 2020:4-5). Sultana, and Bano, (2012:81) thus believe that continuous stress has a major impact on the teachers’ personal and professional lives; it affects the teachers’ behavior and actions not only in the school environment, but also after school hours.


Results from the study indicate that a significant number of respondents agree that work overload plays a major role as a debilitating factor in contributing to primary school teachers’ occupational stress-related issues. In addition, more than two thirds of respondents confirm that excessive working hours and inter-personal conflict are major contributors relating to their functioning. When it comes to reviewing factors such as working hours and interpersonal conflict, more than two thirds of teachers’ feedback was in agreement that these factors are stressful. There is also strong indication that autocratic leadership styles in schools play a key role in eroding confidence and creating stress amongst teachers.

Even though a small number of educators seem to embrace their multidisciplinary role as teachers, the findings indicate that ninety percent of them feel that the role they play is overwhelming. The use of corporal punishment, a tool that was used in the past to mitigate learner bad behaviour, has long since been abolished, leaving educators without alternate options to cope in such situations. As a result, the impact of learner performance and lack of discipline amongst learners significantly diminish the effect on teacher confidence.

Having limited or no access to key resources restricts the ability of teachers to carry out their duties successfully, notwithstanding that there may be other aspects that hinder their performance as well, whilst recognizing that the manner in which teachers cope may differ. Over the past few years frequent changes in curriculum without the necessary training has seen more than fifty percent of teachers struggling to cope. However, others seem to adapt to the changes. To meet their current affordability demand, a significant number of teachers indicate that the challenging economic conditions have those considering alternate income options by redeeming their pension funds to alleviate financial stress. There is also a strong indication that autocratic leadership styles in schools play a key role in undermining and eroding confidence amongst teachers which may also result in early retirement and resignation.

Table 1: Effects of the following stress factors on teachers

In view of all the difficulties mentioned in this study, specific causal factors were focused on.

Resignation/early retirement caused by the expectations and demands placed on teachers combined with poor salaries paid to them, drives them to opt out of the profession. As a result, having to weigh the option of resigning or taking early retirement to address affordability issues, has been a significant contributor to mounting stress levels amongst over sixty percent of teachers.

Behavioural symptoms are a way of identifying individuals that are encountering difficulties. Absenteeism, lacking motivation, poor performance and displacement issues emanating from continuous work-related stress described above, contribute significantly to negative professional behavior. This type of behavior tends to also impact on learner behavior.

Anxiety, depression and occupational stress are signs of psychological difficulties. The results on psychological behavior highlight this issue, as it shows that the majority of respondents indicated that stress did contribute to negative psychological behavior amongst teachers. This can work in concert with substance abuse as a way of illuminating stressful situations. However, in this study about seventy percent of teachers did not find drugs to contribute to their stress.


The above findings revealed that a vast number of the more senior teachers struggle to meet the demands of their jobs, causing many of these experienced teachers to be dependent on hypertension medication, while others are unaware of what ails them. This seems to be a direct result of poor conditions relating to disciplinary issues with learners, low salaries, a heavy workload with some unrealistic expectations and poor coping skills. As a result teachers tend to exhibit physical and mental fatigue affecting their self-esteem and general mental health.  This inevitably costs the schools and learners the resources of experienced, qualified educationists. In order to prevent this loss, Education Departments need to invest in programs that empower teachers to approach their jobs with confidence. This in turn would create a professional environment for learning and growing to take place.


The information gathered in this study sheds light on some preventative and supportive endeavors that can help to minimize and may even mitigate the effects of occupational stress experienced by many teachers.

There are many factors to consider when planning helpful strategies. What are the problems they encounter and what type of program can help to restore confidence and motivation again?

Provide easy to follow and informative workshops to tackle changes in the curricula and training in areas where they may need assistance. Many that are struggling with communication and interrelationship difficulties can benefit from personal development workshops. This can also help with emotional and other personal problems.

Teachers invest much more than just their time in their jobs. Their jobs are usually their vocation. Being undermined by peers and management and having to cope with learner disciplinary issues can erode confidence and lead to demotivation or even resignations and early retirement. Communication and leadership programs can provide useful insight into how to interact with one another, for teachers and management and even to assist with managing learner disciplinary problems.

To maintain and hold onto the valuable experience and dedication provided by teachers, salaries should be reviewed and amended to a more equitable level in line with international standards. This can boost morale and motivation.

Preparing and training teachers by providing training workshops whereby they are able to interrelate with trainers and other peers, allowing them to see themselves as part of the solution, is recommended. This can help them to accept information more readily since it is done in an informal way which is less stressful.


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