The heavy hours


28 August 2023

In short

  • Workload and work intensity together contribute to time poverty among teachers.
  • Policies must address both areas to combat attrition and poor job satisfaction.
  • A new app provides the means to better understand the work teachers are doing.

The enduring workload pressures teachers and principals face remains a policy problem not adequately addressed. The 2022 Department of Education Issues Paper: Teacher Workforce Shortages, for example surmised that teacher “workloads and their complexity have increased over time”, contributing both to attrition and a decline in people choosing teaching as a career. A research project in partnership with the Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU) has found the issue is more complex than workload alone, and suggests systemic responses solely targeting workload, such as reducing the number of teaching hours or providing suites of lesson plans, will have little traction in turning the tide. The pressure points within teachers’ work requires demarcating between workload and work intensification to address time poverty.

Workload vs work intensification

Workload is usually defined as the amount of work done over a given period. This is commonly elicited through self-report surveys. For example, the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), last conducted in 2018, asked teachers and school leaders, “During your most recent complete calendar week, approximately how many 60-minute hours did you spend in total on tasks related to your job at this school?”. This question generates a number of hours worked each week, which is averaged out across respondents. These surveys usually find that Australian teachers are working significantly more hours than is reasonable. A workload survey of AEU South Australian members published in 2022, specifically found that “South Australian teachers work on average over 50 hours per week, including 30 hours of tasks beyond face-to-face teaching”.

Work intensification, on the other hand, is best understood as the experience of difficult or stressful moments of a job associated with complexity and cognitive/psychological demands of a particular task or set of tasks. In our study we draw on Jaime L. Beck’s concept of “heavy hours”, which refers to the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions at once due to competing and contradictory demands at a given point in time. Sociologist Judy Wajcman in Pressed for time: the acceleration of life in digital capitalism describes this feeling of multiple pressures as evidence of a “more complex temporal patterning of experience” as if time is becoming compressed.

Time poverty

We argue that there is a relationship between workload and work intensity that needs to be better understood in the work of teachers and principals. This relationship, we argue, explains a common feeling of always being time-poor. Time poverty is the relationship between a) the amount of work a teacher does, or perceives that they have to do, and b) the intensity of that work, which may be expressed as the number, complexity or stakes associated with decisions that need to be made over a given time period. The fact that an increase in one (load or intensity) can lead to an increase in feeling “out of time” suggests that they are independent concerns. Our argument is that time poverty is becoming a common experience in teaching, and this has to be a focus for systems.

Insisting on this distinction is a reminder that systems must intervene in both workload and the “heavy hours” experienced in order to combat attrition and reduced job satisfaction. It is not just how much teachers are working, it is the subjective pressure of that work which feeds into job dissatisfaction and attrition. Too often, proposed recommendations to solve the problems of teachers’ work focus solely on workload (such as saving teacher’s time through automating or outsourcing some tasks), rather than addressing what it is that teachers find stressful in their classrooms and in their roles.

A further issue is that teachers may expect, and indeed find value in, the complex demands they see as being core or central to teaching itself. David C. Berliner’s work on expert teachers, for example, posits that it is their ability to recognise and respond to patterns in the classroom in relation to learners that defines their craft. Responding to time poverty is not simply about making teaching less complex, it may be better described as understanding the impact of non-core work that teachers feel gets in the way of their ability to be successful in the classroom. Things such as mandated data-entry, increased administrative work, excessive (and performative) assessment work and feeling in perpetual communication via email, apps, learning stories, photos and videos appear to take energy away from teaching itself.

Researching work intensification

“Heavy hours” are difficult to measure. While survey approaches have yielded much valuable information regarding workload, there are concerns that they aren’t as useful for understanding work intensification, or the subjective experience of teachers’ work. Partly this is a problem of recall: in more complex or high-paced moments it can be difficult to remember exactly what was occurring and how time was spent or allocated.

Which is where technology and app development comes in. The collection and analysis of real-time data is easier and more common through wearable or easily carried devices such as smartphones.

What we found

We piloted an app on 109 QTU members in Queensland in 2022. Findings suggest that the app provides new ways to understand the work that teachers are doing and their subjective experience of time.

First, the results suggest that understanding teachers’ work requires grappling with inherent and imposed multi-tasking. When teachers recorded their 30-minutes of time use, it was evident that many were constantly switching their focus across multiple domains. Across the 280 30-minute timeslots recorded, on average teachers spent time on at least nine different activities. When they estimated how much time they spent on these activities, they totalled an average of 63.28 minutes of time use. This did not mean that teachers had warped the space-time continuum, rather it meant that many activities that teachers were managing, and switching between, occurred simultaneously. Teachers were having to layer multiple activities, each with their own cognitive and psychological demands, at the same time. This helps understand why a 30-minute period of work can feel intense for many teachers.

More than half of the participants, when asked at the end of the day how manageable their workload was and how rushed they felt during the day, reported low levels of manageability and high levels of feeling rushed. Those who recorded higher levels of dissatisfaction with their workload and who felt rushed were asked to qualify factors that impacted this experience. Participants identified three common factors, these were managing student needs/behaviour, communicating with parents/carers and the amount of work to be covered in lessons. It is easy to see how these factors add layers of complexity to teaching. Managing student needs/behaviour can take time away from teaching and learning activities, which is at a premium when the teacher feels pressure to keep up with syllabus and curricular content. Communication with parents, whether via email or through a student management system, similarly becomes an administrative task that must be done on top of an already intense schedule.

These “heavy hours” during the school day are exacerbated by the amount of work teachers felt that they still had to do. The app recorded 255 responses asking teachers a) how typical their working day was and b) to estimate how many hours of work they still needed to complete. The teachers participating reported that while their days were relatively typical, on average they still had three hours of work left to do that night or over the weekend.

Better conversations

The problem of teachers’ and principals’ experiences of work is particularly urgent because of concerns about the effects of work on teachers’ health, wellbeing and the ability and will of systems to respond. The teachers using the app are reporting both the heavy hours of their work (intensity) and the amount of work they have to do (workload). This is shedding light on time poverty: the relationship between the amount of work to be done and the intensity of that work. Seeing the problem of time poverty as solvable through policies that aim to reduce workload hours alone does not adequately respond to this problem.

By Greg Thompson, Anna Hogan and Meghan Stacey

Greg Thompson is Professor of Education Research at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and former secondary school teacher.

Anna Hogan is an ARC DECRA research fellow in the QUT School of Teacher Education and Leadership and former secondary school teacher.

Dr Meghan Stacey is a Senior Lecturer in the UNSW School of Education and former secondary school teacher.


The app, developed in partnership with the QTU, can be applied in contexts such as schools, TAFEs and universities. If you would like to find out more about the project, you can visit the project website or read the most recent paper at

When numbers don’t add up

South Australian teachers work on average over 50 hours per week, including 30 hours of tasks beyond face-to-face teaching

Source: A workload survey of AEU South Australian members published in 2022

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2023