Mental health professionals give advice for back-to-school anxiety
As those with the responsibility for educating the next generation, teachers have always worked under great pressure.
Teachers in many countries have been increasingly struggling with high-stakes testing, large class sizes, limited resources, excessive workload, and lack of recognition. This year, Covid-19 has uprooted their lives, burdened them with new responsibilities, and dented their morale. Education Support, a UK charity dedicated to teacher wellbeing, warned that teachers are reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic: “Covid-19 has turned the education sector upside down”.
Studies and surveys show that - even pre-pandemic - teachers appeared more stressed than ever before: Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index found 72 per cent of UK education professionals say they are stressed; the American Federation of Teachers found 78 per cent of US teachers are emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of school days; and a UCL Institute of Education study found five per cent of teachers in England are suffering from long-term mental health complications (up from one per cent in the 1990s).
Stress often leads to burn out and mental illness; many teachers conclude that they must leave the classroom for the sake of their health and happiness. Research from the UK’s Department for Education showed that anxiety, sleeping difficulties, and panic attacks are frequently cited as reasons for giving up teaching.
Through the coronavirus pandemic, discussions about well-being at work have been bubbling into the mainstream, with some organisations addressing the subject of employee mental health for the first time. Teachers’ organisations - both national and international - have published guidance on how to protect teaching wellbeing through this unprecedented challenge, from advising school leaders on safe and supportive reopening to suggesting self-care practices for educators.
UNESCO, the Teacher Task Force, and the International Labour Organisation have jointly published a toolkit to help school leaders reopen schools while protecting teachers. Providing practical advice such as on preparing teachers for a changed school environment, it also suggests how to mitigate mental health impacts. This can include regular psychological and socio-emotional assessment, building peer support networks, and providing training in stress management skills. In one school in Pakistan, teachers unable to teach online were trained in counselling to support other teachers, while members of the school community were offered mindfulness and yoga classes.
The UK teachers’ union NASUWT, meanwhile, published guidance on maintaining well-being while teaching remotely. This included how to protect work-life balance (such as by keeping a routine and dedicated workplace), where to seek support (such as Employer Assistance Programmes and mental health first aiders), and how to practice general self-care. The AFT worked with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to produce a guide of existing resources on well-being during Covid-19. Australia’s ReachOut Schools is also providing free wellbeing resources specific to teachers and teaching website Twinkl has partnered with mental health charity Mind to create activities to help teachers manage their mental health through Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Education Support is providing a dedicated 24-hour helpline for teachers and one-to-one telephone counselling for headteachers through a government partnership.
Regardless of its benefits, self-care cannot always resolve stress. Therefore, teachers are also advocating for changes in schools – and education systems more broadly – to tackle sources of stress and establish a more supportive working environment. The UK government has acknowledged the strain placed on teachers, and has promised to reduce workload and the burden of school inspections, among other measures. Many governments could make comparable changes to reduce engrained sources of stress for teachers, such as tackling large class sizes, de-emphasising exam results, and ensuring all teachers are appropriately paid and supported (e.g.: with access to health insurance and paid sick leave).
While the rights of teachers are already recognised in international standards, governments should consider adopting further policies aimed towards promoting teacher well-being. These could include regular stress risk assessments (advocated by the National Education Union (NEU)), or monitoring teacher mental health (suggested by UCL education experts). Some of these policies could also be proactively adopted by schools.
The NEU advises school leaders: “Acting to reduce levels of stress within your school will lead to less short- and long-term sick leave which will, in turn, reduce pressures on other colleagues as well as benefiting pupils”. In addition to introducing stress risk assessments, the NEU recommends openly addressing the stigma of mental ill health, making reasonable adjustments to support staff when necessary (such as by allowing absences during working hours to attend talking therapies), and appointing a school governor to lead on mental health strategy.
Teachers around the world face a variety of pressures, but every school benefits from them being motivated, engaged, and mentally healthy. When teachers have access to individual psychological support – from self-care guidance to talking therapies – and leaders take measures to tackle sources of stress in the school environment, their schools will be in a better position to thrive.
This blog is part of a series of stories addressing the importance of the work of, and the challenges faced by teachers in the lead up to this year’s World Teachers’ Day celebrations.
Cover photo credit: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash