What is the state of teacher mental health across England?
One occupation where there has been particular concern about mental health problems is teaching, with staff working long hours during term time and under increasing pressure from the system of school accountability (Jerrim et al, 2021)
I have written before that one would struggle to find much academic research on teacher wellbeing 10 years ago. I’m pleased to say it is now becoming more in abundance and fingers crossed, the research starts to signpost that school success is closely linked to teacher wellbeing and mental health.
However, some of our assumptions about the working lives of teachers may or may not be accurate.
FFT Education Datalab has published the most comprehensive analysis on teacher well-being and mental health. Authors Becky Allen, Sam Sims and John Jerrim offer 13 insights into’ The mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England’ (April 2021). There are 171 pages(!); I would encourage you to download the full paper if it is a topic of interest to you.
The report is divided into two parts.
“The first provides the most detailed and comprehensive investigation of teacher mental health and wellbeing in England up to 2018. This includes comparing the situation amongst teachers in England to other countries…”
“The second part of the report turns to potential drivers of mental ill-health amongst teachers. This includes a detailed investigation of teachers’ hours of work – one widely discussed challenge facing the teaching profession…”
I have selected eight areas that interest me the most.
1. Teacher wellbeing across the UK
If teachers had a choice, where would they work across the UK and in what context? The researchers concluded that the personal well-being of teachers is broadly similar across the four nations.
These teachers reported that their job has “a negative impact upon their mental health are 35% (England) and 24% (OECD average).” One can assume from this data that (only slightly), teachers working in primary schools in Northern Ireland are less stressed.
2. What makes a teacher stressed?
Being held accountable for the achievement of students is the major source of stress amongst primary teachers. Workload, marking, preparing lessons all feature in descending order as (relatively) some of the greatest challenges or teachers face. I am pleased to see that classroom discipline, violence and covering for absent colleagues are some of the least stressful aspects of a teacher’s role.
For secondary teachers, marking is the number one issue for stress. I can definitely relate to this and it’s why I published a verbal feedback project; a report to unpick verbal assessment and its impact on outcomes to help alleviate this number one issue for all teachers. Other areas include accountability for student achievement, administration and keeping up with policy change (interestingly).
Table 2.5 on page 24 of the report compares English teachers with those working in Australia, Canada (Alberta), New Zealand and USA, as well as a comparison with the TALIS average (Teaching and Learning International Survey) and the (OECD
3. Marking, marking, marking!
If I focus purely on the number one issue, marking for primary and secondary teachers, here is how the data compares across the nations.
- English teachers (primary 52%) / secondary teachers, 69%
- Australia (33%) / 43%
- Canada 42%
- New Zealand 48%
- USA 36%
- TALIS average 35%
- OECD 41%
The difference is staggering!
What can we all do collectively to change the marking narrative that seems to continue to perpetuate myths, teacher workload and mental health across the teaching profession?
If we also factor in ‘being held responsible for student achievement’ which was the second highest reported issue by English primary and secondary teachers, the English profession also outweigh the average and all other OECD countries.
4. Teaching compared to other professions
When we look at tables 3.1-3.3 below, we can observe teachers compare to other similar professions and how it compares with other careers.
FFT conclude (page 47): “We find little robust evidence to suggest that teachers are particularly anxious, depressed, have lower levels of life satisfaction or have poorer wellbeing outcomes than demographically similar individuals in other forms of professional employment.”
5. Long-lasting mental health
In contrast to the above data, table 5.1 clearly shows that long-lasting limiting health conditions have been increasing since 1997. When compared to other professions, it is one of the highest but not the most significant.
One point worth making is that depression, caused by or made worse by the job, is the highest when compared to accountancy, human resources, nurses and all other professionals (page 60).
6. Unhappiness throughout the academic year
My fascination with the working habits of teachers continues in my doctoral research, and figure 6.1 is very interesting.
What point of the academic year is busier for you? I remember vividly as a school leader, prior to the start of the term and at the end of every term always appeared to be more challenging than the rest of the term. Perhaps this was just my way of working, but we all know that school leaders have to be one step ahead of their school and college prior to the start and end of term. There is much to be done before colleagues and students leave the premises!
I wonder if being one step ahead when there is a school holiday imminent, increases unwonted pressure, particularly if the individual wants to have some respite themselves…
7. Sleep quality
Finally on sleep, and there is so much more research in this report it is worth taking a closer look.
The research unpicks junior teachers at the age of 26 versus how they reported the same mental health responses at 17 years old. Firstly, “there is little evidence that mental health of junior teachers has declined compared to when they were younger, or that it is any worse than for other young professionals.”
Secondly, in terms of sleep quality, junior teachers sleep for around seven hours each night. For those who reported suffering from problems in their sleep, 26 per cent also reported this when they were 17 years old.
8. ‘Having a life’ and a drink…
In the final table (7.5) I have selected, there is a comparison of social activities between qualified teachers and other professions. There is not much difference, but you can see the junior teachers are less likely to go to the pub when compared to office workers, graduates and lower managerial professionals.
The perception that teachers spend all their days in the pub is clearly not true when compared to other graduates…
There is so much good data in this report, we must use information like this to make the teaching profession across England a happier career to pursue.
One thing that the global pandemic has taught me is, even if the stresses and anxieties of teaching do not appear to be so catastrophic in comparison to other professions, we all have a duty to make all the jobs we choose to do across our society, purposeful, safe and productive. This starts with us each having a mental health conversation with our colleagues…
Whilst marking drives all teachers crazy, this research suggests that it is very hard to sustain the position that the wellbeing and mental health outcomes of teachers are worse than for other occupational groups.
As ever, I have only touched the surface. Download the full report.