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2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that teachers’ mental health is worse now than at the height of the Covid pandemic

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The number of UK teachers and education staff who are suffering both psychologically and physically due to their work is growing – despite perceptions that pressures reached their highest during the COVID crisis.

The 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index, an annual report by charity Education Support in conjunction with YouGov, found that teachers’ mental health is getting worse – not better – in several areas, compared to a year ago at the height of the Covid pandemic.

The report found that a growing number of teachers have reported behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms – including panic attacks, anxiety, depression, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, forgetfulness, overeating and tearfulness – as a result of pressures they face at work. That number stood at 77% this year, up from 74% in 2020.

According to the Index, one in five staff (19%) experienced panic attacks in the last year, among other symptoms linked to mental health. That was the same proportion as the previous year, suggesting that teachers’ mental health is not improving as many had hoped it would following the return to classrooms and a lifting of restrictions that piled pressure on teachers during the pandemic. That figure was significantly higher for those who had been in the sector for 0-2 years compared to those who had been in it for longer.    

Work-life balance and excessive workloads remain persistent issues relating to symptoms of poor mental health, but the proportion of teachers and staff citing Covid-19 as the factor contributing to poor mental health soared from 33% in 2020 to 62% in 2021.

The Index, which is based on surveys of 3,354 education staff, is the fifth of its kind and comes following a particularly difficult time for the teaching sector. It found that four in ten (38%) teachers reported experiencing mental health issues in the past academic year, up seven percentage points on 2020. More than three-quarters (77%) of all staff experienced symptoms of poor mental health linked to their work, with the proportion reporting psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety and panic attacks standing at 51%.

The 2021 Index also highlights the stress on headteachers and senior leaders and the continuing effect that Covid-19 is having on schools and those who work within them. The proportion of senior leaders who said they experienced mental health issues in the past academic year rose from 29% in 2020 to 41% this year, while 38% said their symptoms could be a sign of exhaustion.

Of those reporting symptoms of poor mental health, 78% of heads and senior leaders attributed them to a poor work-life balance while the same proportion gave the reason as excessive workload (78%). The impact of COVID-19 on heads and senior leaders’ mental health also increased significantly from last year (33%) to 62% this year.

One primary school headteacher who recently spoke to Education Support said while the wider community is “COVID-weary” and desperate to return to ‘normality’, the situation remains desperate for frontline staff.

She said: “The message from Ofsted and the Government is that the pandemic is over, everything’s back to normal. But we’re so far from that in schools – we’re still living in the heart of it. Every day I make decisions that scare me. I’m not a medic. I’m a teacher, but everyone expects me to be a Covid expert. I’m afraid that one day I’ll make the wrong decision and someone will get hurt.”

The worrying pressure on teachers’ mental health and wellbeing is compounded by a lack of support and training, with teachers suggesting that their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is inadequate in preparing them for the challenges of teaching.

According to the 2021 Index, three-quarters of teachers (74%) think their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses do not prepare them well to manage their own wellbeing, while six in ten (61%) said they did not receive sufficient guidance about their mental health and wellbeing at work. Only four in ten (39%) said they received sufficient guidance (7 percentage points lower than in 2020).

One R.E. teacher who contacted Education Support’s helpline said: “I had suicidal thoughts, started blacking out and having several panic attacks a day. Education Support carried me when I couldn’t walk. It really was a lifeline – by making those calls I’m still alive.”

Education Support, which provides a 24-hour helpline for teachers and support staff, is urging ministers to heed the report’s findings, warning that ongoing anxiety and stress – potentially leading to burn-out – may mean teachers are unable to perform their roles effectively. Resulting absences, presenteeism and sub-optimal teaching and learning outcomes are not only catastrophic for the profession, but impact more widely at the very time the sector is striving to deliver the Government’s education recovery plans.

The Index shows that teachers feel more needs to be done to support the sector, including reducing unnecessary paperwork (48%) and greater recognition of the intensity of the work environment within teaching (41%).

NASUWT General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said:

“Sadly the findings are no surprise to the NASUWT and reflect our own research and casework that shows record levels of stress, burnout and anxiety among teachers.

“Far from a return to normality, teachers are facing extraordinary workload pressures and stress caused by the pandemic and the demands of securing the country’s education recovery.

“Even before the pandemic, levels of stress and breakdowns among teachers were rising year-on-year due to the lack of effective action by the Government to tackle excessive workloads and the overloaded accountability system. The pandemic has, for many teachers, simply made a desperate situation even worse.

“Teachers cannot simply be expected to soldier on. No teacher should be expected to sacrifice their mental or physical health to do their job.

“The wellbeing of teachers is integral to pupils’ progress and achievement in education.

“The Government has a real opportunity to build back better after the pandemic by taking decisive action to tackle the root causes of excessive teacher workload and support the mental and physical wellbeing of the profession.”

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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Sadly, these findings reflect what we are hearing from teachers and school leaders.

“Even before the pandemic there were significant existing challenges like heavy workload, the high-stakes nature of the job and a decade of salaries falling in real terms. But this has been exacerbated by the lack of trust and support for leaders shown by the government over the past eighteen months.

“We are hearing of far too many school leaders at breaking point, and unless the government takes this situation seriously we could be left facing an exodus from the profession.

“Three quarters of leaders in a recent NAHT survey cited the government’s constantly changing pandemic guidance as their biggest management challenge of the last year. Nearly half said they were less likely to stay in leadership for as long as planned, following the pandemic.

“Despite the increased pressure on them, school leaders have stuck to their task. But unless the government acts urgently to make school leadership an attractive proposition for teaching professionals the school leadership supply pipeline is going to run dry.

“There is no more pressing problem facing the new ministerial team in the DfE and they simply must take this opportunity to completely reset the relationship with the profession.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“Whilst it is not a surprise to learn that the severe disruption to education during the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of teachers, the ramifications for the profession are extremely worrying.

“It cannot be right that more than three-quarters of those surveyed by Education Support reported that they have experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work, nor that 85% of senior school leaders describe themselves as suffering from stress.

“The government placed wholly unreasonable demands on the teaching profession throughout the pandemic, expecting them to deliver education both in person and online, to assess and award grades to students who should have been taking exams last summer and to organise lateral flow testing and contact tracing. All this whilst bombarding them with constantly shifting guidance, some of which was contradictory and delivered at the last minute.

“No wonder then that so many teachers have been pushed to the absolute limit, with only their dedication and desire to help young people preventing them walking away from the profession in large numbers.

“The longer-term picture meanwhile shows that very little has changed in the last five years, with excessive workload consistently cited by teachers as a major reason for symptoms of poor mental health.

“The government needs to stop taking teachers for granted and acknowledge the serious impact the pandemic has had on their mental health by delivering and funding more training and support to allow them to concentrate on the job of educating young people.”

Sinéad Mc Brearty, chief executive of Education Support, whose helpline supported 9,570 cases last year alone, said:

“The 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index shows that education staff continue to face impossibly high demands and are suffering as a consequence. The pandemic may appear ‘over’ for the wider community, but this report shows that isn’t the case for teachers and senior leaders. Rather than seeing improvements to their mental health in 2021, the pressure has ratcheted up further. This report is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the future of education in the UK.”

The Index also analysed the wellbeing of teachers and education staff using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS). It found their score stood at 43.90. According to the scale, scores between 41 and 45 should be considered in high risk of psychological distress and increased risk of depression, putting teachers firmly in a very worrying bracket.

Education Support is calling for more support from Government, echoing findings within the Index which showed that teachers thought the three biggest issues the Government should focus on to improve the workforce’s wellbeing are:

  • Reducing unnecessary paperwork or data gathering (48%)
  • Reducing the volume of workload (43%)
  • Recognising the high intensity or high pressure work environment within education settings (41%)

Sinéad Mc Brearty added: “Teachers and support staff have never been needed more, by their pupils, but also the entire country. The success of the education recovery plans depends on a resilient teaching sector that is supported and resourced to meet the needs of children and young people in the wake of pandemic disruption. 

“The Government must recognise that education is a high-pressure environment and provide adequate training and support for everyone working in the sector. Steps have been taken to address this recently but more needs to be done, urgently.”

Methodology: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 3354 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th June – 20th July 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK Teachers.

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