#FE Lecturers 2020 - High levels of #anxiety and low levels of #wellbeing as job satisfaction falls

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has today (6 Jan) published a review of the evidence on teacher wellbeing in England. 

As policymakers become increasingly interested in improving the country’s wellbeing and mental health, a growing list of headlines seems to indicate that educators’ mental health is worsening and their job satisfaction is falling. 

Nearly a million educators currently work in state-funded schools in England, and research has shown that the wellbeing of teachers affects both their retention and their students’ outcomes.

This new analysis piece considers the latest data in national surveys and other sources, in order to understand the latest trends on teacher wellbeing. 

Key findings

  • The average teacher in a mainstream school is happier, more satisfied with life, and finds life more worthwhile than the average graduate, though both have similar levels of anxiety.
  • Secondary teachers report lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction and worthwhileness than primary and early years teachers, but also lower levels of anxiety.
  • Further education lecturers stand out among educators as having high levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of wellbeing.
  • Senior leaders have among the highest levels of positive wellbeing but also the highest levels of anxiety.
  • Educators’ wellbeing has increased over the past seven years, tracking the trend of the graduate population. However, over the same period, their job satisfaction has fallen.

Teachers’ wellbeing matters

As policymakers become increasingly interested in improving the country’s wellbeing and mental health, a growing list of headlines seems to indicate that educators’ mental health is worsening and their job satisfaction is falling. The wellbeing of the school workforce is of concern because over 947,000 educators currently work in state-funded schools in England, and research has shown that the wellbeing of teachers affects both their retention and their students’ outcomes.

However, nationally representative surveys tend to show that teachers have greater wellbeing and job satisfaction than other graduates. How can these two, seemingly contradictory, findings be reconciled and what is really going on with teachers’ wellbeing?

Wellbeing has several dimensions

Wellbeing is a broad concept encompassing the condition of individuals, communities, or nations. On an individual level, subjective wellbeing is commonly measured through self-reports, in contrast to more objective indicators of personal wellbeing such as physical health and financial security.

There are three distinct, but related, dimensions to personal wellbeing: evaluative, eudaimonic and experiential wellbeing. The Office for National Statistics’ annual population survey (APS) – the largest regular, nationally representative survey measuring subjective wellbeing – asks four separate questions to understand these three dimensions:

  • The evaluative approach asks individuals to make a reflection or assessment of their lives, not specific to a certain point in time. The APS asks, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”
  • The eudaimonic approach asks whether people’s underlying psychological needs, such as having meaningful lives, having a sense of control over their lives and having connections with others, are being fulfilled. The APS asks, “Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”
  • The experiential approach attempts to capture the day-to-day nature of positive and negative emotions over a reference period. The APS asks, “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” and “Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”

Respondents self-report on each of the four subjective wellbeing questions from a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (completely).

These measures of personal wellbeing encompass an individual’s perception of their entire life and circumstances. In contrast, the majority of research to date has focused on educators’ occupational wellbeing, which relates only to wellbeing in the workplace – a far narrower domain of wellbeing, though no less important.

We analyse the personal wellbeing of educators using data from the APS, an annual household survey with a sample of around 150,000 valid wellbeing responses each year, 2,500-3,000 of which are teachers. We employ two separate samples beginning in 2011, when the personal wellbeing questions were first added in the survey: the APS datasets from 2011-12 to 2017-18 for a longer time series, and the APS personal wellbeing datasets from 2011-12 to 2014-15, for a detailed breakdown by occupation (SOC4). The personal wellbeing datasets were discontinued after 2015 and the rest of our analysis uses the broader SOC3 category of “teaching and educational professionals”, which refers to all those working in the education sector, including higher education, further education, and administration.

Teachers have greater personal wellbeing than other graduates

Most educators, and especially teachers in mainstream schools, are happier, more satisfied with life, and find their lives more worthwhile than the average graduate. However, teachers’ average anxiety levels are on par with other graduates’, and the anxiety of senior leaders and FE lecturers is markedly above that of other graduates. In other words, teachers have greater positive wellbeing than other graduates but similar anxiety.

The chart below compares the experiential wellbeing of educators to that of all graduates using the APS measures of subjective wellbeing. Though the chart shows only experiential wellbeing the other measures of positive wellbeing – life satisfaction and worthwhileness – are highly correlated with happiness. Graduates are used as a comparator group because teaching is a graduate profession and graduates tend to have higher wellbeing than non-graduates.

FE lecturers stand out with high levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of positive wellbeing among educators, a worrying observation given that FE has also suffered the greatest cut in funding of any phase of the past decade. Special school teachers, on the other hand, have the lowest levels of anxiety and are among the highest in happiness, life satisfaction, and worthwhileness. However, these results are based on only 100-150 teachers’ responses and may not be representative of the overall wellbeing of teachers in special schools.

Secondary teachers report lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction and worthwhileness than primary and early years teachers. This parallels job satisfaction levels between the two groups: primary teachers are more satisfied with their jobs than secondary teachers. However, secondary teachers also report relatively low levels of anxiety, which is surprising given that previous studies have found that they experience high levels of work-related stress and less manageable workloads.

Senior leaders have among the highest levels of positive wellbeing and the highest levels of anxiety. These are both consistent with the literature, as studies commonly find higher wellbeing among senior leaders as well as higher rates of stress compared to mainstream teachers.

All educators, with the exception of FE teachers, report worthwhileness levels well above the graduate average. Worthwhileness may be the APS measure most closely related to occupational wellbeing, as the question asks about the “things you do in your life.” Given the nature of the work and that teachers overwhelming cite their motivations for entering the profession as wanting to make a positive difference, these scores are unsurprising.

Teachers report high levels of job satisfaction relative to other professions: studies including the OECD’s 2018 TALIS survey (an international survey of teachers) find that 70 to 80 percent of teachers are satisfied with their jobs, and that school staff are more satisfied with their jobs than their peers in other workplaces. At the same time, the school workforce also reports high levels of job stress. The Education Support Partnership (a charity providing mental health support to the sector) found in 2018 that, although over three-quarters of education professionals rated their life satisfaction and happiness highly, 67 per cent also reported feeling stressed. In the labour force survey the same year, education had the greatest average prevalence of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety among the 21 industry groups.

One exception to the consistency of these findings is the results of a recent Ofsted survey of over 2000 educators – their sample reported lower levels of life satisfaction than the average population, even though they had high job satisfaction. Only 54 per cent of educators reported high or very high life satisfaction, compared with 82 per cent of the general public. The survey’s fairly low response rate (29 per cent) hints at a potentially self-selecting sample. Its respondents may represent a substantial subset of educators for whom wellbeing is particularly low, and who may be more likely to leave the profession unless provided with more support.

Wellbeing has risen since 2011

Educators’ subjective wellbeing has improved over the past seven years, tracking trends in the graduate population: while happiness, life satisfaction, and worthwhileness levels have risen for both groups, anxiety levels have fallen. However, in recent years, things may be changing: as while anxiety levels have stabilised for all graduates, they have risen somewhat among educators; conversely, as the graduate population’s levels of happiness and satisfaction have seen slow but steady growth, among educators they have stalled.

Differences within the education profession

For the four APS measures, differences in trends between roles are small but nonetheless interesting. While the wellbeing of primary and early years teachers and special schools teachers showed improvement on all four measures between 2011 and 2015, the picture is more mixed for secondary and FE teachers. For these groups, levels of happiness and worthwhileness remained relatively stable and may even have decreased.

It is possible that increases among all educators in wellbeing during the past seven years, particularly in life satisfaction and worthwhileness, may not necessarily be representative of these two groups. Although it is difficult to draw definite conclusions from the limited time series, these are populations that may warrant special attention.

In addition, while anxiety levels decreased over the four-year period for almost every group of teachers, they increased among senior leaders even as positive wellbeing has remained high. This is a trend for which changing policy and accountability demands could be a plausible explanation if they are placing a greater burden on school leaders.

Occupational wellbeing has fallen as personal wellbeing has risen

The level of educators’ personal and occupational wellbeing are largely consistent. In both domains, educators report high positive wellbeing, as denoted in the APS by happiness, life satisfaction, and worthwhileness, and in the occupational wellbeing literature by job satisfaction. In both domains, educators also report high anxiety or job-related stress. These findings indicate that the profession is one in which the majority find their work as demanding as it is rewarding.

However, the trends differ: occupational wellbeing among teachers is falling even as personal wellbeing rises. Most prominently, the Education Support Partnership has reported rising levels of anxiety, depression and stress amongst the profession within the past three years, manifesting in symptoms such as insomnia and irritability and increasing numbers of counselling helpline calls.

Similarly, TALIS found a drop in the proportion of secondary school teachers satisfied with their jobs from 82 per cent to 77 per cent between 2013 and 2018, with fewer teachers believing the profession was valued by society. Likewise, indicators of negative wellbeing in TALIS, such as unmanageability of workload and dissatisfaction with pay, have deteriorated.

In contrast, the 2018 global teacher status index found that the status of teachers had improved, relative to other professions, over the same period as TALIS. That survey asked not only teachers but also the general public, so it could be that perceptions of teachers’ status have declined precipitously among teachers, even as they have risen in the general population.

Conclusion

In summary, teachers’ wellbeing is increasing and their anxiety is decreasing. The profession is generally faring better than the wider graduate population. The status of teaching among the public has also improved in recent years, contrary to teachers’ perception.

However, wellbeing amongst senior leaders and FE lecturers is either plateauing or falling, and anxiety is not improving. A possible explanation is that both FE lecturers and senior leaders in schools have had to deal with increasing pressure from accountability systems and, particularly in the FE sector, budget squeezes.

There remains a puzzle in the divergence between teachers’ personal and occupational wellbeing. However, it is important to remember that the change in averages does not mean that any individual teacher’s wellbeing had necessarily changed.

The trends we report do not track individual teachers, so it may be that part of the explanation is due to changes in the sort of person who chooses to remain in education, rather than changes in the wellbeing of individual teachers.

If, for example, only the most resilient and optimistic people stay in the profession as job satisfaction falls, average wellbeing across teachers may still rise over time as occupational wellbeing declines. However, that is only one possible explanation among many and more research is required to truly understand what is happening to the teaching profession today.

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