Work Related Stress in the Outdoor Education Profession: A Management Perspective

By Thomas, Glyn | Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Work Related Stress in the Outdoor Education Profession: A Management Perspective


Thomas, Glyn, Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education


Abstract

This paper focuses on work related stress within the outdoor education profession in Australia, based on the second part of a research project exploring human resource management issues in the Australian outdoor education profession. The first part of the project is described elsewhere (Thomas, 2001) and this paper presents the findings of interviews with ten managers from outdoor education organisations. The time commitments, relationship difficulties, job characteristics and employee preparation, and perceptions of the profession's value were identified as the main work related stress challenges within the profession. The initiatives being used by managers to mitigate those challenges included building supportive communities, enhancing job satisfaction through improved conditions and benefits, and providing professional development opportunities. An intelligent understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of burnout is needed along with awareness that multi-dimensional problems require multi-dimensional solutions.

Introduction

Human resource management in the outdoor education profession has a number of inherent challenges. Consider the following hypothetical situation.

Peter is the principal at a private school. The school has a strong outdoor education program and Peter has helped it to grow and develop. The outdoor education staff get a slightly reduced teaching workload compared to other teachers in the school, but when the outdoor education staff lead overnight trips, they have to prepare lessons for other teachers to use whilst supervising their classes. When trips occur on the weekends, the outdoor education staff do not receive any time off in lieu for their extra weekend and evening commitments. Two of the outdoor education staff have reached the point where they have had enough of the high work load and the stress, and they are looking for a career change. Peter doesn't want to lose his current staff, and would prefer to avoid having to recruit and induct new outdoor education staff. However, he can't convince the school board to approve any changes to the working conditions for the outdoor education staff.

Peter and his employees are fictitious but in the outdoor education profession their situation, or ones like it, are not uncommon. Most practitioners in outdoor education understand the challenging nature of continued employment in the profession. Yet, it is not just the practitioners who face difficulties. School principals, managers of outdoor education centres, and directors of outdoor companies also experience significant challenges managing their human resource. This paper will focus on one aspect of human resource management, the issue of work related stress.

There has been considerable research and interest in the phenomenon of work related stress, and in particular, burnout, since the mid 1970s. The research has primarily focussed on nurses, dentists, physicians, social workers, counsellors, psychologists and teachers (Abel & Sewell, 1999; Cherness, 1995; Dinham, 1997; Farber, 2000; Friedman, 2000; Huberman & Vandenberghe, 1999; Lambert, 1994; Maslach & Leiter, 1997, 1999; Potter, 1987). A review of this research and writing as it pertains to outdoor education has been previously published (Thomas, 2001) and only a brief summary will be included here.

Burnout has potentially serious social, moral and financial implications for organisations and individuals. According to the literature, burnout is not a homogenous phenomenon and it does not have a predictable and common set of symptoms, causes and treatment (Cherness, 1995; Farber, 2000; Friedman, 2000; Maslach & Leiter, 1997, 1999; Potter, 1987). This creates a number of potential problems. Firstly, there is great diversity in the range of symptoms listed and some of them seem to directly contradict others. Secondly, the symptoms listed are not peculiar to burnout, which makes accurate diagnosis difficult. …

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