Staff wellbeing: The problems of presenteeism...

Written by: Education Support | Published:
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Presenteeism is a rising issue in the workplace, and can be a particular problem for schools...

In its annual Health and wellbeing at work report, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found evidence that 83 per cent of respondents had witnessed presenteeism in their organisation in the past year, up from 72 per cent in 2016 (CIPD, 2019).

This mirrors our own research. We know that presenteeism is a very live issue in schools. Educators can be more likely than other professionals to feel compelled to come into work when unwell. In our study in partnership with YouGov, almost half (48 per cent) of all school teachers in England said they “always” feel they must come to work, even when they are feeling unwell, rising to 57 per cent of senior school leaders.

A growth in presenteesim is associated with increases in reported common mental health conditions as well as stress-related absence. The CIPD describes threats to wellbeing in the modern workplace as increasingly psychological rather than physical. Yet too few organisations are actively tackling unhealthy workplace practises and stress.

While the root causes of this within schools is still emerging, anecdotally we know that teachers can feel a huge amount of guilt and a sense of shame in taking time off, often due to there being inadequate staff cover and the impact they believe it will have on pupils and colleagues.

But it is crucial that for the sake of themselves, and so they can continue to deliver as high-performing individuals, that teachers are encouraged to practise self-care. It is also imperative that schools have a culture and the resources to remove the stigma that exists around admitting and sharing struggles.

This can be difficult for leaders who may be struggling themselves, yet if we do not tackle the issue as a priority we know that we can expect long-term sickness rates among teachers to rise.

Between April 2018 and March 2019, our emotional support helpline experienced the highest number of calls ever – 9,615 cases. This was a 28 per cent increase compared to two years ago. Many of the calls related to workplace stress, yet the vast majority of callers only get in touch with us when they are already in crisis.

While this steep rise in teachers struggling to maintain good wellbeing and mental health raises deep concerns, it is important to know that when people look for help, it is there when needed. Indeed, 87 per cent of callers said they felt better equipped to deal with their problems after accessing support, either after one call or through a number of structured sessions talking to a counsellor.

At present, however, fewer than half (43 percent) of classroom teachers are aware that they can access free and confidential telephone counselling. Education Support wants to see more schools offer staff access to specialist face-to-face counselling through measures such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

As Rachel Suff, senior employment relations advisor at the CIPD said: “Organisations need to develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteesim. Without this evidence-base, efforts to support employees and improve their health and wellbeing will be short-lived.”

School leaders have a key role to play in discouraging presenteesim. Nobody wants desensitised, emotionally exhausted teachers in the classroom. It is time to take serious, strategic action on the health of schools as workplaces.

We urge anyone working in education who is feeling overwhelmed, fearful, anxious or disinterested in life to contact us, no matter how insignificant they think their problems may be.

  • Education Support is a UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce. For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact its free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or visit www.educationsupport.org.uk


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