Sunday’s New York Times ran a story about some elite prep schools in the New York area who are making a concerted effort to better stagger tests and essays so students are not so overwhelmed as well as limit the amount of homework given over school breaks. Advocates of this policy note that there is no evidence that overloading students with homework makes them smarter in the long run

In small studies of students taking on these high workloads showed that they were not getting nearly enough sleep and that some of the teenagers were already suffering from stomach ulcers, headaches, and mental health problems. The vast majority of these students reported feeling stressed most of the time.

Many parents and teachers however feel that the high workloads are critical to students learning all the required material and for preparing the student for the “real world”. The amount of material required to be absorbed for an Advanced Placement test notwithstanding, the belief that students need to handle this workload in high school in order to function in the workplace is a stretch considering this sort of environment would be ripe for creating burnout in adults.

The article cited homework loads at some of these elite schools of five hours per night. This is on top of a school day that likely lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and later after sports practices, drama rehearsals, and other extracurricular activities are completed. This means that, if the weekend workload is also five hours per day, these students are working close to eighty hours per week.

In addition, the work assigned over weekends, holidays, and vacations means that students can never truly “unplug” to take a break or reflect on what they are doing. The nature of high school also means that students will view at least some of the assignments as pointless busywork which means that they will be neither invested in it nor will it likely result in any long term information gain.

Forcing teachers and administrators to be more careful and purposeful about how and when work is assigned may even help decrease the percentage of busywork but in any case it will certainly decrease the amount of time students have to spend doing it.

These elite schools are charged with educating the leaders of the future so perhaps the idea of more reasonable workloads and avoiding a life of constant stress will carry forward into their working lives.

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Canada’s answer to improving worklife!

Michael Leiter

Dr. Michael Leiter, co-author of Banishing Burnout and The Truth about Burnout, is set to release his newest book on Work Engagement. Dr. Leiter founded the Canadian Centre for Organizational Research & Development and has researched organizational behaviour for more than two decades. He knows how to improve an organization’s bottom line (productivity and profitability by improving its top line - people. In fact, he and his co-author coined the term "work engagement" as the antithesis to burnout!

Over the years, Dr. Leiter has worked closely with a host of researchers, including Dr. Christine Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), and most recently, with Dr. Arnold Bakker on work engagement. Now, through work with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) - the largest integrated health care system in the U.S. - Dr. Leiter has the CREW Solution.

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