Peer Pressure and Overwork: The Case of Public School Teachers


“Oh man… report cards next week too.”

When I was a kid I did what many kids did and worked at McDonald’s.[1] And there was this one other kid – I can’t even remember his name, but he had really white teeth, and he worked like a dog. He never stopped smiling, he never screwed up, and when our shift supervisors had us competing for speediest sales over the rush periods, he always won the “contest.” (He got a free burger or a t-shirt or something.) I kinda hated the little jerk. He made the rest of us look bad. I on the other hand, at 15, had already mastered the cynicism of the seasoned line worker.

It wasn’t until some years later I understood that my resentment slotted neatly into a long and venerable tradition of detesting keeners and brownnosers. Because they make everyone else look bad. In old-school labour parlance, workers who disregarded group norms by working flat out and producing more than others were called “rate busters.”[2] This took place under a piece-work incentive system where theoretically, every worker would be motivated to produce as much as possible to earn the most money possible. So what’s interesting here is that despite this incentive system, the majority of workers adhered to a norm of producing at less than full throttle.[3] Rate busters, because they breeched this norm, were ostracized.

I thought about this idea of a “norm” determined by our co-workers when interviewing some teachers about their workloads. Research shows that teachers work on average between 50 and 55 hours a week. But when you dig in to the specifics, you start to hear all kinds of variations. At the low end of effort is the slacker.[4] The slacker doesn’t do extra-curricular activities with the kids, and has been using the same worksheets in his class for twenty years. He leaves the school by 4:00 every day. At the other end of the effort spectrum is the keener. The keener coaches volleyball, works tech with the senior high kids at the spring concert, and leads the school professional development initiative for EAL (English as an additional language) learners. She never seems to stop working.

I talked to a keener last weekend. She’s proud of her hard work. “Teaching is a hobby for me,” she says. She thinks nothing of coming in on Saturdays. But there’s a whiff of judgement in her voice about those who don’t want to work 63 hours a week. “Do you think other teachers resent you?” I ask. “Absolutely,” she replies. Voila: the rate buster is alive and well.

How Much Should a “Good” Teacher Work?

In fact, teachers watch each other very carefully when it comes to workloads. Each has his or her own idea about how much a teacher “ought” to work, and tends to judge colleagues’ efforts accordingly. This lack of consensus about work effort and work hours is further complicated by the unregulated nature of teachers’ lesson planning and extra-curricular time. Technically, teachers are “required” to work only about the same number of hours a week as the standard office worker, but this doesn’t begin to account for the full scope of a teacher’s workload. The lack of accommodation for off-the-record labour is, according to research, contributing to burnout in the teaching profession – hence my research into teacher workloads in collaboration with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.[5]

Burnout and in some cases the erosion of education quality leads unions to pursue improved working conditions for teachers, including better, clearer guidelines around how many hours a teacher ought to work. Teachers who feel they neglect their families and their own well-being during the school year want some clear and realistic limits around the work week. So they resent the “rate busters.” The keeners, on the other hand, may regard anything less than “full throttle” as a moral failing on the part of their colleagues, regardless of the different demands they may face in their personal lives.

Shaming, Blaming and Overwork

As an occupational group, teachers are an obvious and pressing example of the “creep” toward overwork that is created not by explicit demands from the workplace, but by the kind of peer pressure dynamics I just described when I said that teachers “watch each other carefully.” And workplaces generally are only too happy to allow this kind of peer scrutiny to continue, as it drives workers to produce even if they’re killing themselves with overwork.

And if we think we’re not paying a collective price for our overwork, we’re wrong. Studies show that overwork has negative impacts on our physical health, our psychological health, and perhaps most sadly on the quality of our relationships with significant others.[6] Another study I’ve been involved with, surveying school principals across Canada, is crammed with observations that families are fragmented, parents are stressed, and children are lonely. Schools see the effects when families can’t even manage regular meals together.

So rather than pointing fingers at one another, it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves how much we ought to work – especially in a culture where workaholism is worn as a badge of honour. We tend to treat work/life balance as a “lifestyle” question of individual choice and individual responsibility. But the question of how much we ought to work can also be considered one of collective interest, in which we decide as a society that time to rest, time to reflect, time for oneself and the people and causes we care about, are all investments in our long-term collective well-being.

Oh, and note to Frank, my old shift manager at McDonald’s, who encouraged us to “be a team” and assemble Happy Meal boxes on our breaks: If you’re still around, you can still kiss my ass. I’m taking my unpaid 15 minutes to enjoy a hot coffee, and check in at home.

[1] I’m speaking in the past tense here about “what kids did” because most McDonald’s workers now seem to be immigrant adults. AUGUST 30 Self-Congratulatory Update! This article discussing protests by American fast food workers cites the average age of these workers as 28.

[2] Dalton, M. (1948). The industrial “rate buster:” A characterization. Applied Anthropology, 7(1), 7-18.

[3] In other blogs I’ve mentioned rational choice theory. Within RCT, we are all “homo-economicus” – that is we all make rational choices that serve our best personal interests. We are all “utility maximizers.” In the study of economics, “economic man” is a foundational assumption in economic modelling, used to predict the outcomes of our aggregated choices. But of us in practice don’t operate according to the model; instead, emotions and relationships factor heavily into our supposedly “rational” decision making. The rate buster is an “economic man” because s/he is making the rational economic choice to work harder and make more money. If we were all “economic man,” the norm of working less hard than we could wouldn’t exist. If you’ve never read about or studied economics formally, CBC offers a terrific introduction to Economic Man as part of a fun 10 part series, The Invisible Hand. The linked episode includes an interview with Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist and author of the very interesting Predictably Irrational, which describes many of the social and emotional factors that influence our decision-making.

[4] Mysteriously, no one ever labels themselves a slacker; it’s always “the other guy.”

[5] I’d like to make clear that my blog is my own musings on this research, and that I am not speaking on behalf of the Alberta Teachers’ Association here, much as a remain a fan of teachers, researcher of teachers, and teacher of pre-service teachers! For the ATA’s take on things, see Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2012). The new work of teaching: a case study of the worklife of Calgary Public teachers. Edmonton AB: Author. Canadian work/life balance researchers Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins also recently published extensive data on teachers’ work/life balance as part of a national study covering a range of occupations. See Duxbury, L. & Higgins, C. (2013). The 2011/2012 national study on balancing work, life, and caregiving in Canada: The situation for Alberta teachers. Ottawa: Carleton University.

[6] For example Burke, R. J., & McAteer, T. (2007). Work hours and work addiction: The price of all work and no play. Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being, 6, 239–273. doi:10.1016/S1479-3555(06)06007-0


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