Teacher wellbeing: Covid threatens to leave legacy of anxiety, stress, depression and burn-out

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

"If I’m honest, at the present time, I feel like each day’s problems are impossible to solve.”

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to compound existing problems with staff wellbeing and leave a legacy of anxiety, stress, depression and burn-out among the UK’s teachers, according to the annual Teacher Wellbeing Index.

Published by the teacher wellbeing charity Education Support, the report finds that more teachers than ever are reporting symptoms of poor mental health, including depression and anxiety.

The report draws upon research including two surveys of education professionals, one in July involving 3,034 staff and one in October involving 1,072 colleagues.

A key finding is that, in October, 84 per cent of teachers and 89 per cent of school leaders described themselves as feeling “stressed” or “very stressed” – the comparative figures from the July survey were 62 and 77 per cent respectively, showing the impact of the continuing pandemic.

Also on the rise are insomnia, tearfulness and teachers reporting that they are struggling to concentrate at work. A third of respondents to the July survey said that their mental health symptoms were related to the Covid-19 pandemic (34 per cent).

Overall, the Index warns that half of all teachers (51 per cent) and 59 per cent of senior leaders said they had considered leaving the profession this year due to pressures on their health and wellbeing.

The main reason, given by 68 per cent of education professionals, was the volume of workload (rising to 76 per cent for senior leaders). Other reasons cited by those considering quitting included not feeling valued (63 per cent), a desire for a better work/life balance (63 per cent), needless paperwork or data gathering (61 per cent), and working in a target-driven culture (52 per cent).

Among those professionals who said they have considered quitting this year, the analysis also found that:

  • Stress levels are significantly higher (63 per cent vs 33 per cent).
  • Working hours are significantly higher, with 73 per cent working 60 hours or more per week.
  • They do not feel supported by their school in terms of mental health and wellbeing (73 per cent).

Staff working in sixth form colleges gave the highest indication of considering leaving the profession in the last two years (63 per cent), compared to those working in secondary schools (54 per cent), primary schools (51 per cent) and early years (48 per cent).

The report is clear that the issues all existed pre-Covid, but that the pressure of the pandemic has exacerbated many problems. It finds that during the pandemic, 50 per cent of colleagues say that their mental health and wellbeing has declined. The report adds: “The demand of Covid-19 has piled further pressure onto an already strained workforce.”

This article opens with a quote from one headteacher, speaking to Education Support about the Index’s findings. Another teacher told the charity: “The goalposts keep moving and being able to do everything well is getting harder and harder, which is putting more and more stress on individual teachers and school communities.

“For some the constant change is unmanageable and stress levels are rising rapidly among even some of my calmest colleagues. The regular uncertainty as to what will happen next led me to desperately seeking help.”

The Index comes after research from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warned of a “post-Covid exodus” of school leaders.

The research, published in November, was conducted with more than 2,000 school leaders and found that 70 per cent report being “less or much less satisfied in their current role than this time last year”, while 47 per cent said that the pandemic means that they are “now less likely to remain in school leadership for as long as initially planned”.

Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of Education Support, said: “There is ample evidence that educators play a critical role in the wellbeing and attainment of children and young people. No one delivers their best work when they are very stressed or emotionally depleted. The compound effect of high levels of stress over a number of years is deeply worrying: the additional strain and anxiety generated by Covid-19 is a step too far.

“The government’s extra funding planned for 2022/23 is simply not enough in real terms to meet the scale of need. Senior leaders in particular have reached breaking point, stretched to the limit in being able to cope with the extraordinary pressures on top of existing stress.

“It is time to start taking the mental health of our teachers and educators seriously. The first step is investment. We ask the UK government to act now, by providing education institutions with the resources needed to perform their duties effectively. If we don’t, we risk losing the much-needed talent and experience that can guide the education sector through recovery from the pandemic.”

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