Stress in education: A real and present danger

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Teachers and school leaders are working an average of 11.1 hours of unpaid overtime every week, but still ministers and the public refuse to acknowledge the damage that stress and workload cause in education. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw urges action.

News that teachers are putting in an extra 11.1 hours a week of unpaid overtime sadly comes as no surprise. It is even more concerning that this figure has risen by 90 minutes in the past 12 months.

The annual unpaid overtime figures for 2012 show that 52.4 per cent of teachers and educational professionals put in extra hours every week. The statistics (from the Labour Force Survey) have been released as part of the TUC’s Work Your Proper Hours Day – the day when the average person who does unpaid hours would start to get paid if they worked all their overtime at the start of the year.

This year, the day fell on Friday (March 1) and the figures for teachers do not compare favourably to the national averages – overall, one in five people of us puts in unpaid overtime, averaging 7.3 hours a week.

Teachers are actually the third-worst profession for the percentage who work unpaid hours, with directors of financial institutions topping the list ahead of research and development managers. However, the most disturbing statistic is that out of the entire top 10, education has by far the highest number of people working extra hours, with more than 712,300 professionals all working overtime.

Perversely, the figures seem to have improved since 2011, when teachers topped the charts with almost 724,000 working unpaid hours – or 55.6 per cent. However, I do not think it coincidence that with redundancies having hit education hard in the past year, the numbers working overtime have fallen, but the amount of overtime they’re working has risen dramatically (find the figures at www.workyourproperhoursday.com).

It is tremendous that our teachers and school leaders are willing, consistently, to go to such lengths for their students and their schools. However, if we don’t do something about this issue, our education system will be in serious trouble. 

We lose too many young teachers who throw themselves into their work, taking on all manner of extra duties, only to quickly find themselves flagging and unable to keep up. The workload of management and leadership can also take its toll on more experienced professionals in this most pressurised of environments.

In SecEd we are constantly reporting on work\life balance and stress, whether it be surveys and statistics, best practice advice, or case studies warning of the dangers.

In January, we heard Tassa’s story via the Teacher Support Network. Tassa left teaching due to the severe stress. She explained how she tried to warn her colleagues: “I see their bloodshot eyes with the tired skin below. I hear stories of them getting ‘the shakes’, working ‘til midnight and for whole days at the weekend. I try to tell them to stop before they burn-out but I know the words are meaningless.”

In November, resilience coach and former teacher Kathryn Lovewell wrote about her NQT year, during which she made herself so ill she ended up in hospital.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw caused uproar after his comments last year that stress was too often used by schools as an excuse for poor performance. SecEd fought back, printing the many poignant letters that we received. One teacher wrote: “I leave work at about 5:30pm, usually with a laptop and pile of assessments, and will often work till 10pm at night as well as weekends – don’t forget rewriting schemes of work over holidays because the government changes its mind on content and assessment every year.”

Stress exists. High and unreasonable workload exists. Long hours (way beyond the 3:30pm myth) exist. The public and government ministers, not to mention Sir Michael, need to get the record straight and start supporting teachers, who too often put their health on the line for the most noble of causes. Stress in education is a real and present danger.

But perhaps the only way to get through to policy-makers is to relate it back to the only thing they care about: outcomes. Stress and workload is a barrier to high performance. That’s a fact. If we can tackle this issue effectively, then we would see, I believe, a leap in standards and exam success like never before.


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