More than words: Please act now on teacher wellbeing

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The workload and wellbeing crisis in schools is not down to a lack of resilience or competence on the part of teachers and the government’s response must reflect this. Dr Patrick Roach pleads with ministers to act now

Excessive workload has a major impact on teachers’ health, safety and wellbeing and undermines teachers’ ability to teach effectively.

Long working hours and the onerous and impossible demands being placed on teachers have left many feeling highly disillusioned in a job they love.

We have seen the huge toll that high workloads and high-stakes accountability have on the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

Teachers are increasingly telling us that the additional demands associated with the pandemic mean they are expected to work harder and longer. And, constant change, last-minute decision-making, and a lack of practical support or the resources needed from the government don’t help.

The effects are stark

We know from NASUWT’s recent Wellbeing at Work research that nine out of 10 teachers have experienced more work-related stress in the last year and, shockingly, 91 per cent report that their job has adversely impacted their mental health. Six in 10 say their work has adversely affected their physical health.

The survey ran from December to January and the full results will be published in due course, but I can tell you that the biggest reason for these work-related stress and health issues, according to the respondents, is workload, with just over half (52 per cent) citing this as the main factor.

Too often, teachers report feelings of being undervalued, not respected and not trusted to do the job. Quite simply, this has got to change, and quickly.
Two-thirds of teachers already tell us that they are seriously considering leaving the profession because of concerns about excessive workload. And we know that two-fifths of recently qualified teachers leave the job within the first five years (DfE, 2021a).

There is a recruitment and retention crisis in our schools, and a succession crisis, too, as the job of headteacher becomes more and more onerous by the day.

Our school leader members tell us they feel they have caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Is it any wonder that the numbers of teachers and headteachers seeking to retire early is increasing? This is the cost of the workload and wellbeing crisis in schools today.

Workload pressures are leading teachers and headteachers to seek professional help and counselling to help them cope with the impacts on their health and wellbeing.

Even before the pandemic, NASUWT’s annual Big Question research showed that levels of stress and breakdown among teachers were rising year-on-year due to the lack of effective intervention from the government to tackle excessive workload.

Praising teachers for their efforts and commitment to pupils, but constant handwringing over the workload crisis in our schools is a clear indictment of this government’s failure to value the teaching profession. The systemic issues adversely impacting on the wellbeing of the profession need a systemic response.

We know that the wellbeing of teachers and high morale are integral to pupils’ progress and achievement in their education. But it’s increasingly clear that the educational opportunities for all children, especially the most disadvantaged, are being held back or denied by government failure and lack of urgency on this issue.

So, what needs to change?

While the government’s focus on improving initial teacher training and CPD opportunities for teachers is welcome, this isn’t yet matched with clear guarantees for teachers to time off for training and development, and it needs to be.

Teachers tell us that an entitlement to CPD for all teachers, including for supply teachers, would help to improve morale. And we also need to see better wellbeing and welfare support for teachers, too, and an end to punitive absence management procedures.

The cause of the workload and wellbeing crisis in schools is a lack of resilience or competence on the part of teachers and headteachers.

Urgent reform is needed to the structures within which schools operate – curriculum and assessment, appraisal and accountability – and there must be a much greater emphasis on collaboration coupled with a duty for all agencies working with children and young people to cooperate, collaborate and work together in the interests of children, young people and families.

The government needs to restore the systems it deliberately stripped away a decade ago.

With the forthcoming Schools White Paper and an expected Green Paper on SEND, ministers must set out their plans to better support the work of classroom teachers and to guarantee schools the additional resources and support they need.

It is right that the government begins to reverse cuts to school budgets, but the deep cuts to local authority children’s services must also be addressed if no child is to be left behind.

Teachers and headteachers cannot simply be expected to soldier on. And no teacher should ever be expected to sacrifice their mental or physical health just to do their job. We need to see better support for teachers in the classroom, but also wraparound support for children and families, too.

Putting teachers first

While ministerial attention may be distracted by the fate of the prime minister in the wake of “partygate”, it is vital that they fix their attention on ending the workload crisis.

We know from speaking to our members that giving teachers time to do what is an extremely demanding job and rewarding them properly for the vital job they do would make a huge difference to the morale of the profession and to the wellbeing of teachers.

Giving all teachers a pay and career structure where pay progression is not dependent upon spurious assessments about a teacher’s performance would also help to end discrimination and promote fairness at work.

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter (DfE, 2021b) was intended to be a spur to action across the system, but relatively few schools have expressly signed up so far.

The government needs to do more to convey to all schools what it expects, if we are to avoid another initiative to tackle workload and wellbeing running aground. Teachers don’t need more exhortation and kind words from politicians – they need to see action from a government that trusts the profession and which puts teachers first.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT. Read his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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