Call for increased teacher efficacy to counter rise in work-related stress

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

Accountability and education reforms must promote increased levels of trust, autonomy and teacher efficacy and development if we are to beat the rising tide of stress in the profession.

The recommendation is from the annual Teacher Wellbeing Index, which has revealed that work-related stress among teachers has risen in the last 12 months, with notable increases in reports of tearfulness and difficulty sleeping.

Published this week by the charity Education Support, the annual index report is now in its third year and tracks mental health and wellbeing trends among UK teachers.

The report finds that 34 per cent report having experienced a mental health problem in the past year – up from 31 per cent in 2018. However, it also reveals that 39 per cent of teachers would not talk to anyone at work about mental health issues for fear of stigma.

The highest levels of stress were reported among senior leaders, 84 per cent of whom reported being stressed (up from 80 per cent in 2018). Meanwhile, 73 per cent of teachers reported being stressed in 2019, up from 64 per cent in 2018.

Of the more than 3,000 education professionals involved in the research, 57 per cent said they have considered quitting at some point during the past two years. Reasons cited for this include volume of workload (71 per cent), not feeling valued (65 per cent), the target-driven culture (53 per cent) and unreasonable demands from managers (50 per cent).

Key factors contributing to stress levels, according to the report, is an inability to switch off and working long hours, with stress levels rising the longer teachers worked each week.

The findings come after the Department for Education’s (DfE) second Teacher Workload Survey, which was published in October, found that working hours have fallen by around five hours a week since 2016.

The survey recorded an average working week for teachers and middle leaders of 49.5 hours, down from 54.4 hours since the first survey in 2016 (primary teachers worked 50 hours a week in 2019, down from 55.5; secondary teachers worked 49.1 hours a week, down from 53.5).

Senior leaders’ working hours also fell to 55.1 hours a week from the 60.5 in 2016 (for primary leaders the fall was from 59.8 to 54.4 hours a week, for secondary leaders it was down from 62.1 to 56.4).

The DfE survey also found that teachers were working fewer hours during evenings and weekends than in 2016, a finding reflected in the Teacher Wellbeing Index as well.

However, despite this progress workload remains high. The DfE research finds that primary teachers work an average of 12.5 hours at evenings and weekends, while secondary teachers clock up 13.1 hours. Furthermore, 73 per cent of primary respondents and 87 per cent of secondary respondents viewed workload as a “very serious” or “fairly serious” problem.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index warns that workload remains the key barrier to teacher wellbeing and retention: “Long working hours continued to be a reality in the education profession across all job roles, with many education professionals working for many more hours than they were contracted to.

“Workload remained the major aspect of working in education which professionals disliked and, if changed, would most improve employee wellbeing and their work/life balance.”

The report also warns that while 34 per cent of all teachers have experienced a mental health problem in the last 12 months, this figure rises to 43 per cent of NQTs.

Half of the respondents to the research said that their workplace culture had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing with 78 per cent having experienced behaviourial, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work – up from 76 per cent.

The index also reported sharp rises in reports of difficulty sleeping (38 to 52 per cent), tearfulness (29 to 44 per cent), and difficulty concentrating (27 to 42 per cent).

The report recommends that increased levels of trust and autonomy for teachers and school leaders will help to tackle the stress epidemic. The report states: “This will improve self-esteem and wellbeing across the sector, with a positive impact on recruitment, retention and pupil outcomes. Accountability systems need to continue to evolve in a way that builds teacher efficacy and development, as opposed to unproductive tension and anxiety.”

It adds: “Overwork has become normalised across education. Healthy working practices and boundaries need to become the new, celebrated norm. With improved levels of health, teachers will be more physically and emotionally present to learners.”

The report also calls for funding to help schools develop “supportive, relational workplaces”, with all senior leaders given access to personal and peer support, while all teachers must have access to professional and confidential emotional support via an Employee Assistance Programme or similar.

Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of Education Support, said the trends they were seeing in the index painted a “concerning picture”.

“Our understanding of mental health and emotional development has grown over recent decades, yet we do not widely and openly acknowledge the extent of the emotional work inherent in education. The disproportionately high levels of stress reported by the workforce impede their ability to effectively nurture children and young people, including an increasing number who are vulnerable.

“Encouragingly, knowledge into the causes and impact of teacher wellbeing has grown steadily in recent years. This improved evidence-base has coincided with an appetite and energy from across the sector, and among policy-makers, to address the issue.

“We must harness this current enthusiasm to introduce measures that deliver meaningful and sustainable change, creating the systems, policies, conditions and support to allow teachers and school staff to flourish.”

Commenting on the Index, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Everyone knows that on a good day, teaching is one of the most rewarding careers imaginable. The trouble is, there just aren’t enough good days. For many teachers and school leaders, the enormous privilege of helping young people learn and grow can be outweighed by the pressure and workload of the profession they’ve chosen.

“Teachers are graduates who have many career choices open to them. They go into teaching with passion, because they care and want to make a difference. But more is needed to create a truly positive proposition for a career in teaching.

“The essential components include competitive pay, attractive and flexible working conditions, a healthy work/life balance, opportunities for career-long CPD, and lower risk ways of holding schools to account. Ultimately it is very simple: pay people properly and treat them well.”


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