The origin of this theory actually comes from medicine. At our university, we train individuals from the ‘helping’ professions such as teachers, social work, and healthcare professionals including nurses, midwives and allied health (not good for your league table positions on ‘salaries after five years’, but we just ignore that). This means we’ve got experienced professionals from these fields who have then become academics. It’s a fantastic thing really – these people aren’t traditional academics, but people who’ve forged two careers and stand on the boundary of both. We also share practice across helping professions – there’s a lot of similarities: caring nature, mentoring models, standards, excess work, high stakes accountability, unbelievable stress and so forth.
As part of our enrichment programme in teacher education we wanted to introduce more well-being sessions, but ones that were grounded in theory. So we turned to our healthcare practice colleagues. Podiatrist, Dr Adrienne Sharples duly came and offered a session for the trainees and the session was theoretically quite interesting. Adrienne asked questions like: who is checking their work email in their own time? Who thinks about work outside work hours? And of course all the teachers in the room were putting their hands up. The idea she introduced was ‘bounded empathy‘ – the notion that as caring and empathetic professionals we had not established firm boundaries between our duty to empathise during working time and our ability to switch off this empathy during our own time and subsequently we had ‘unbounded empathy’. Her research demonstrated that those with ‘unbounded empathy’ experience poorer well-being. We become ever more involved in loco parentis as teachers, taking accountability and empathy from our professional persona and bringing it with us, through the boundary to our own persona where it reduces our well-being.
Now that this idea is with us in the teacher education department we’ve taken it further and developed the notion of ‘bounded professionalism’. The reason we are checking work emails, working excess hours and generally sacrificing our personal well-being for the sake of a micro-point on someone’s spreadsheet is not solely due to unbounded empathy. Quite often, the things we are doing in our own time don’t really contribute very much to learning at all. Excess marking, data drops – there’s actually quite a lot we’d happily remove. However, in the teaching and education profession we’ve cultivated a notion of what a professional is like and what a professional does. And a ‘professional’ sacrifices well-being and personal family time in order to ‘do the job to a professional standard’. We’ve got a wholly soft boundary that leeches and leaks from one side to the other. I frequently meet senior managers who think that working 55-65 hour weeks is what is expected of a senior manager and that having a soft boundary, that lets them work all weekend, is expected and that only seeing their family for a limited time at the weekend, let alone during the week, is the ‘price paid’ for being a senior manager. Why should a senior manager give more of their own time than any other professional? Do they deserve less time with their family? They are paid extra because the decisions they take carry more risk for the organisation, not because they do 15 hours extra per week. One reason we haven’t substantially reduced workload in the profession is because senior managers are reluctant to let go of the extra work and ensure bounded professionalism is in place. That attitude then permeates the profession: those who already work 55 hours a week and who then complain about 20 hours a week of winter mock exam marking are seen as not fulfilling their professional demands. Having family commitments is almost seen as unprofessional when they prevent a teacher from pulling enormous hours at pinch points in a year.
As a profession, then, we need to have ‘bounded professionalism’. This means to inhabit your professional persona within firm boundaries. When you exit your professional persona you no longer operate in work mode – checking emails, working on marking or plans. You can move from one persona to the other with your empathy checked and your professionalism checked. There is also a realistic and sensible work loading on this professional persona.
When the work load is too high and the bounded professionalism is too weak, then the only option is to sacrifice well-being in order to meet the excess workload. And we all know the end game of that: they leave their job and sometimes they leave the profession. If they don’t, their well-being and their physical and mental health suffers (and quite possibly their family and relationships). Senior managers and teachers alike have to establish new firm boundaries: turning emails off over the weekend and cultivating a culture of not working on the PC into the late hours. Further, they need to be reviewing the high impact events which can shock the professional boundary – the mock exam season just before Christmas, the endless run of late night open evenings, parent evenings and options evenings or even just weekend emails requesting work. Sitting down and planning directed time means these things can be done and people can have hard professional boundaries. It’s time to reclaim the profession and for all of us to reclaim our well-being.