Reviewing the literature about the current landscape for education professionals: bleak and alarming or reassuring and affirming?

It probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the former rings true for the literature that assesses teacher wellbeing in the UK; but what does this mean for our project?

After determining that we had tapped into a potentially seismic problem within the education sector, Sam and I decided that we needed to gain a deeper insight into the current landcape regarding stress and wellbeing for teachers. As expected, the literature that we’ve reviewed so far has raised more questions than it has provided answers. Why are the numbers recording teacher stress levels rising with each year? What is the solution for the disconcerting levels of teacher retention? What effective strategies are schools using to promote and prioritise the wellbeing of their staff? And, perhaps most worryingly, why are more teachers reporting an increase in the relation between their profession and mental health problems?

It has become very apparent that there is enormous scope for more research into this trend. Reviewing the recent data surrounding teacher wellbeing has provided us with fuel to delve further into this problem and affirmed our reasoning for wanting to try and understand, interpret and intervene where possible.

To begin with, we reviewed the literature that reports on stress and wellbeing for the UK workforce in general: still pretty bleak stuff!

The 2019 Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) report on stress and anxiety at work seeks to explore whether the aforementioned have personal or cultural causes. It reports that 66% of employees have felt stressed or anxious about work in the last 12 months. What is really insightful about this statistic is that it suggests that 76% of those employees are under 35: why do under 35’s feel more stressed and anxious at work? Bear with me, there are still plenty of questions! ACAS also reported that only 8% of employees said their workplace effectively prevented them from feeling stressed: again, what’s going fundamentally wrong in the workplace and its provision for employee wellbeing? Teaching staff are undoubtedly the best resource that a school has, so we are in for a rough ride if these figures are paralleled in the education sector (spolier alert: you can probably guess how the research pans out!).

Most teachers, in our experience, indicate that workload is a significant cause of their stress. But what about other sectors? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey (2019) cites the top three causes of stress to be as follows: 62% of those surveyed attribute stress to workload, 43% to management style, and relationships at work stands at 30%. Evidently, intervention designed to minimise stress would have to tackle many facets of a corporation’s organisational structure.

Now, where does this leave teachers: rising majestically above the wider UK workforce, or painfully incapacitated by stress and anxiety? If you’ve ever seen a teacher on day one of October half term, just six or seven weeks into the academic year, you’ll know the answer… Bed-bound, crippled by the flu, drowning in a pile of marking that wasn’t finished during the hectic final week: teacher burnout, or stress-induced illness, is glaringly obvious from an anecdotal perspective. And the research supports this.

The 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index states that 72% of all education professionals would describe themselves as stressed: in fact, almost all factors reported that contribute to a decline in teacher wellbeing have risen from 2017 to 2019. Staggeringly, the report reveals that 78% of all education professionals experience negative behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work; this is compounded by the fact that a third of staff surveyed in the index reported that stress has directly led to mental health problems – the highest the index has recorded. Workload is cited as a major contributing factor; no doubt, seeing as the index found that 33% of teachers work over 51 hours a week. In comparison to the wider UK landscape, it’s a depressing outlook.

If you think back to that bleak image of the burnt out teacher in October half term, the anecdote is reinforced by one interesting fact that the Teacher Wellbeing Index finds: 49% of surveyed teachers admit to experiencing presenteeism, the notion of going to work, despite not being well enough.

Is it realistic to have an impressive record of attendence, with many teachers boasting a five year streak of no sick leave? Of course not. But the guilt of imposing cover on other members of an over-worked department, aided by the thought of letting the students down, leads many teachers to go into work when they are otherwise unfit to.

The final point of interest for the Index is the statistic that 49% of teachers considered that their workplace culture had a negative effect on their wellbeing. Whilst this is a topic for another post, the evidence points plainly towards a need for substantial change to the culture and organisational structures in schools.

The question now becomes this: why do teachers and other education professionals suffer with stress, in context, more than the average worker in the UK? Why do schools often create an environment that’s toxic to the wellbeing of its staff? Why isn’t a couple of weeks off every now and then, where we can jet to exotic locations for the price of a small car, enough to keep us sweet?

In conducting the review of this literature, we were left with one overwhelming thought: there simply hasn’t been enough research into this area. For example, The Cochrane Collaboration conducted research into organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work-related stress in teachers. It was an ambitious and promising task, with 4 studies and 2199 teachers taking part. These studies evaluated three types of intervention: changing teachers’ tasks by redesigning the work, adapting timetables and the work environment; school-wide coaching support networks; and performance-based bonus pay and promotion opportunities, accompanied by mentoring structures. At last! A practical study with scope to explore the impact of varied methods of reducing stress in schools. Yet the conclusions were undeniably disappointing. All studies saw either no considerable effect or a very small reduction in work-related stress. The conclusion drawn? Many results were not reported, schools dropped out and thus not enough participants meant that the quality of evidence was low.

And therein we find a significant, but not insurmountable, challenge. Stress levels are increasing, teachers are suffering in their work environment, the evidence is plain in terms of the systemic change needed. Yet the questions remain. The problems persist. And not enough is being done to make effective change.

Tell us your experiences; contributions are always welcome!

Rachel and Sam

Bibliography

Wakeling A, (2019). ACAS Workplace Policy, ‘Stress or Anxiety at work: personal or cultural?’

Education Support, (2019). Teacher Wellbeing Index

Naghieh AMontgomery PBonell CPThompson MAber JL, (2015). The Cochrane Collaboration, ‘Organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work-related stress in teachers’

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, (2019). Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey

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