Reports of rising levels of stress, burnout and even depression among teachers have seemed relentless over the last few years – with a real spotlight on how educators are coping with the intense pressures placed upon them. While it’s essential to support teachers’ emotional and mental health, Anthony Burns – Director at not-for-profit Health Cash Plan provider Paycare – says we mustn’t overlook their physical, financial and digital health too.
“There’s a danger when we focus too heavily on one aspect of our health that we can neglect the other aspects. Just like a machine, humans work at their best when every part of us is looked after, and that’s why workplace wellbeing now covers such a broad remit of practices and policies – from eating and exercise habits to financial worries and work/life balance, and everything in between.
Yet the seemingly constant focus on the mental health of the UK’s educators has remained. It’s not a surprise though that this is such a core area of attention for the media, particularly in the wake of the pandemic with all of the extra challenges that it brought to the education sector.
Of course, hand in hand with the pandemic came home schooling. This has undoubtedly helped to change general perceptions of teachers having taught many parents how difficult a job it can actually be, bringing about a welcome new appreciation for educators. This has perhaps in itself created an increased pressure on schools to look after the health and wellbeing of their staff.
This should not only stretch to the mental health of their staff however, there has never been a more poignant time to explore the need for a more holistic approach to teacher health – covering physical, emotional, mental, financial and digital health.
Educators spend the majority of their day on their feet, often for long periods of time without a break, which will not only affect their foot health but can also inevitably affect their posture, leading to problems with shoulder, neck and lower back pain. And aside from the fact that common colds are understandably a continuous problem, research has shown teachers are also more prone across their lifetime to conditions such as Laryngitis.
When you consider the hours spent marking or preparing lessons too, a teacher’s day can be extremely long. Oftentimes there may not be much of a chance for a break to rest and recharge, to refuel by eating something, or even to rehydrate. Fitting in any form of regular exercise may also be out of the question.
Gone are the days when caring for one’s emotional wellbeing was considered an individual’s own concern, the role employers have to play here is become more and more recognised. A school or college’s wellbeing policy should have provision to support individuals, not just when they have a diagnosable mental health condition, but also when they’re struggling with the day-to-day stresses associated with a pressurised career.
Providing the right support for teachers’ holistic health and wellbeing can enable them to recognise when their resilience reserves may be running a little low and support them to ‘top up’ those reserves with proactive action. Regularly sharing information so that teachers know exactly how and where they can access these services, and ensuring the culture is such that teachers feel comfortable to speak up if something’s not quite right – that they’re not working through physical, emotional or financial pains – can equip them with the tools they need to help maintain that all-important equilibrium.
A recent Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 77% of education staff experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work, and 54% have actually considered leaving the sector within the past two years due to pressures on their mental health.
Moreover, Further Education lecturers in particular stand out among educators as having high levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of wellbeing. They’re supporting the next generation, but who is supporting them? Research shows that stigma is still a problem, with 60% of higher education sector staff reporting that they would not feel confident disclosing mental health problems or unmanageable stress to their employer. However they are not just a statistic about stress, they are real people, whose health and wellbeing is multi-dimensional and requires a range of solutions to keep them balanced, happy and healthy.
With the cost of living crisis, financial stress is affecting everyone as they struggle to maintain their standard of living, with debt being a real issue in many households – including for those in professional careers such as teaching. The impact that our financial health has on our wellbeing is immeasurable, yet it is rarely talked about, and the kind of openness and support that will help people through difficult financial times is often overlooked when it comes to what education settings are offering their teaching staff.
The average unsecured debt per household in the UK, not including student loans, is £5,233. When you take student loans into account, this jumps up to £10,145. While wholesale pay rises are out of the control of educational leaders, or near-impossible to offer due to budget constraints, there are still plenty of ways that better financial health can be encouraged.
Incorporating financially-focused aspects into the overall wellbeing offering can be of huge benefit – these can include signing up for discount schemes, Health Cash Plans (which enable them to claim money back on everyday healthcare costs such as physio, eye tests, dental appointments, chiropody and much more), or access to experts in specific areas such as mortgages, debt advice or pensions.
Many teachers use screens for excessive amounts of time every day, particularly in the modern age of teaching and more so in further education settings where students will generally work on screens more often than in younger year groups. This can lead to headaches and cause eyestrain and other optical problems.
Display Screen Equipment regulations suggest a screen break of between 5 and 10 minutes, or a change of activity, every hour. However the pandemic and the subsequent introduction of zoom calls and online teaching, particularly for older children, only served to increase screen time for further education teachers, and whilst teaching has moved back into the classroom, much of the screen use in higher education still remains.
It’s also important to consider the relationships staff have with technology – overreliance or overuse can lead to a wealth of physical and mental health problems. And increasing reliance on the digital world has also blurred the lines between work/home (almost 90% of workers say being unable to ‘switch off’ out of work hours is the main negative outcome of an increased use of technology).
What can individual teachers do to support themselves?
It may seem obvious, but the most important step they can take is to support their health by looking after themselves. It is an old adage that attack is the best form of defence, and it makes sense for them to be proactive rather than simply reactive when it comes to caring for their health and wellbeing.
A focus on preventative healthcare must surely be the answer – teachers need to be encouraged to seek proactive support and have regular contact with a range of healthcare professionals. It can be difficult to find the time in a busy schedule to attend appointments but that’s why it’s vital to develop a working culture where taking care of your health before it becomes a concern is vital.
How can leadership teams help?
Leadership teams can support further education staff by providing wellbeing support, however whilst it is a good place to start, it isn’t enough to simply put in place meaningful policies and practices. It is imperative that the teachers are fully made aware of the existence of such policies. Last year, still only 52% of staff reported being aware of organisational wellbeing policies which shows greater awareness is required.
Schools can support their teams by exploring different employee health provision options – with options such as access to virtual GP appointments and Employee Assistance Programmes providing access to confidential telephone counselling proving helpful when it comes to fitting healthcare between classroom time, marking and lesson planning.
They can also look at providing Health Cash Plans which enable them to claim back the cost of everyday healthcare expenses such as optical or dental care can help reduce financial strain. Workplace Wellbeing plans for their staff should include things that everyone can benefit from – whilst reduced gym memberships and the likes are all well and good, if both money and time is tight for teachers then this is unlikely to really help them. Instead, plans which also offer useful perks that make a difference to their everyday lives, such as money off utilities or the weekly food shop, may be much more beneficial.
Creating a supportive atmosphere with open conversations and communication which normalise talking about pressures such as financial strain can help immensely in breaking the taboo, as can ensuring staff have ready access to various experts for advice, and counsellors for support.
Above all, simply recognising the importance of holistic health and wellbeing for all is a giant leap that leadership teams can make towards supporting the overall health of staff within the further education sector. By prioritising wellbeing proactively, before smaller symptoms lead to bigger problems, Paycare believe the world can be happier and healthier.”
By Anthony Burns, Director at not-for-profit Health Cash Plan provider Paycare