Thirteen insights into teacher wellbeing and mental health
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 April 2021
Today, with my colleagues Becky Allen and Sam Sims, I have published a major new analysis of teacher mental health and wellbeing in England. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, it is the culmination of two years of work and is, we believe, the most comprehensive analysis on this issue to date.
In this blogpost, we’ll take you through a whistle-stop tour of some of our results.
1. Teachers in England are more likely to perceive their job as causing them stress – and having a negative impact upon their mental health – than teachers in other countries
In spring 2018, teachers in more than 40 countries were asked whether they felt their job caused them stress and had a negative impact upon their mental health.
As the chart below illustrates, teachers in England were very clear in their views. Lower-secondary teachers in this country were more likely to say that their job had a negative impact upon their mental wellbeing than teachers in almost any other country. (Results for primary teachers produced a similar finding – albeit compared to a smaller number of other countries).
Teachers in England clearly believe that their job – in certain ways – has a negative effect upon their wellbeing.
2. Teachers in England do not have lower levels of wellbeing than demographically similar individuals working in other professions
It has previously been claimed that teachers have lower levels of wellbeing than other occupational groups.
Our analysis dispels this myth – see the chart below. Once demographic background characteristics of individuals have been controlled for – e.g. gender – teachers in England actually have similar levels of (un)happiness and anxiety as other professional workers.3. Like those working in other professions, there has been a recent rise in the percentage of teachers reporting mental health problems…
Over the last decade, there has been a notable rise in the percentage of teachers reporting a long-lasting mental health problem – see the chart below.
This, however, is also true for other professional workers, such as accountants, nurses and human resource workers. It is therefore not a phenomenon that is specific to teaching, and hence seems unlikely to be related to teachers’ jobs.
Indeed, our report reveals that there has been little change in the proportion of teachers who suggest depression has been caused or aggravated by their job.
4. …but this could just be due to an increase in reporting of mental health problems (rather than a decline in teacher wellbeing per se)
One potential explanation for the finding presented in the chart above is that it is due to increased reporting of mental health problems – both among teachers and society as a whole.
The chart below may provide some support for this point of view. Over the period that reported mental health problems of teachers increased we have found the percentage of teachers reporting low levels of personal wellbeing has remained broadly flat.
In other words, despite more teachers reporting a long-lasting mental health problem between 2011 and 2018, there has not been a similar systematic increase in anxiety, unhappiness, dissatisfaction with life and feelings of low self-worth.
5. There is no specific half-term where teachers feel particularly anxious or unhappy (…they are particularly happy in the summer, though!)
We all have ups and downs in our wellbeing. But we previously knew very little about how the feelings of teachers varied over the course of the academic year. Are teachers particularly anxious and unhappy at certain times?
As the next chart demonstrates, we found little clear evidence that feelings of anxiety or unhappiness are especially likely to occur in any given half-term. Although there seems to be quite a large amount of week-on-week fluctuation (quite possibly due to our limited sample size) there seems little evidence of a systematic pattern by school term.
The only exception is that – surprise, surprise – teachers seem to be happier and less anxious during the summer holiday.
6. There is no evidence that becoming a teacher is associated with a decline in mental health
When someone decides to become a teacher – with the heavy workload and new experiences that entails – does wellbeing start to plummet?
The answer – as demonstrated by the chart below – is no. Recently qualified teachers actually have similar levels of mental wellbeing at age 26 to when they were age 17 (before they became teachers). This pattern is also similar to other professional groups.
Consistent with our interpretation of the second chart in this blogpost, this result suggests that deciding to become a teacher is unlikely to lead to a decline in wellbeing and mental health.
7. Middle-aged teachers who quit do not have better mental health and are not more happy generally (despite being slightly happier at work)
There is also little evidence that middle-aged teachers who quit for alternative employment experience much change in their general wellbeing and overall mental health.
As the table below illustrates, although those middle-aged teachers who quit teaching report being slightly happier at work, this does not translate into lower levels of anxiety or depression, and is not associated with greater levels of happiness in life overall.
In other words, for those who are considering leaving the teaching profession, the grass may not be that much greener on the other side.
8. Teachers’ working hours have been broadly stable since the early 1990s
Workload and working hours have become a key education policy issue in England over the last few years, in part stimulated by results from the TALIS 2013 study which suggested that teachers in England work longer hours than teachers in most other countries.
However, it does not seem that teachers are now working much longer hours than historical averages. Indeed, as the next chart reveals, there has been relatively little variation in the average working hours of teachers since the early 1990s.
There is, of course, an important caveat to this finding. It is possible that workload has increased while working hours have remained stable – with teachers required to cram more work into the same amount of time – or for more tasks to build up and remain incomplete.9. It is time spent upon marking and lesson planning that really causes teachers stress in the workplace
When it comes to the link between working hours and workload stress, it is clear that not all tasks are equal – see the table below.
Looking across English-speaking countries, we find that each additional hour teachers spend on marking and lesson planning is strongly associated with an increase in their workload stress.
The same is not true, however, for time spent on professional development and time spent actually teaching. Increasing working time spent on these areas are either associated with a decrease in workload stress or only weakly associated with an increase workload stress .
For policymakers and senior leaders the message is clear. If you want to reduce the workload stress of teachers, it is these auxiliary tasks (often done in the evening, at weekends or during holidays) that need to be tackled.
10. Countries with extensive accountability systems are slightly more likely to have teachers who feel stressed from being held accountable for pupil achievement
Outside of workload, the other great evil often associated with low levels of teacher wellbeing is high-stakes accountability.
Unfortunately, little high-quality quantitative evidence exists on how such accountability systems really impact on the mental health of teachers.
What we do know from our report is that countries with more school accountability do have teachers who are (slightly) more stressed by this aspect of their job.
Now, as I have said previously, we need to be careful with such cross-national comparisons. And, of course, correlation does not equal causation. So we might ask: in England, do we have the right balance between quality assurance of schools and ensuring that this does not stress teaching staff out? But at the same time, we should keep in mind that the relationship between accountability and teacher wellbeing is not that strong – and is certainly not deterministic.
11. Teachers feel more stressed about accountability when their colleagues do as well (but, surprisingly, not really when their headteacher does)
One thing we have learned about teacher stress induced by accountability is that it seems to some extent to cluster within specific schools. A form of ‘emotional contagion’, as it were.
Teachers in over 40 countries were asked to rate how stressed they were about accountability in the TALIS 2018 study – “not at all”, “to some extent”, “quite a bit”, or “a lot”. For every one category increase in colleagues’ stress levels – from “quite a bit” to “a lot”, say – there was a 16 percentage point increase in the proportion of teachers saying that they felt “quite a bit” or “a lot” of accountability-related stress themselves.
Interestingly, though, we find only a weak relationship between whether headteachers feel stressed by accountability and the stress reported by their teaching staff. This may suggest that, in general, headteachers do a good job in not projecting their worries about accountability on to their staff.
12. Supportive leadership and manageable workloads appear more important than other factors when controlling workplace stress levels
What can schools do to reduce workplace stress? In our project, we looked at how workplace stress (as well as job satisfaction and teacher retention) is related to five separate aspects of teachers’ working environments.
When it comes to workplace stress, two of these working conditions stood out – see the table below. First, having teachers who feel their workload is manageable is strongly associated with a reduction in their stress levels. The second is having a supportive leadership team in place.
13. Lockdown did not seem to reduce teachers’ workplace wellbeing or lead them to suffer from greater levels of work-related anxiety
The Covid-19 crisis has, of course, turned teachers’ (and everyone else’s) lives upside down. Although most of the data we use in our report comes from the pre-Covid era, we were able to investigate how the wellbeing of teachers may have changed during the early stages of the pandemic.
As the chart below reveals, teachers’ work-related anxiety actually declined during lockdown. Moreover, our report reveals how lockdown did not seem to impact upon teacher wellbeing overall.
Headteachers, however, did suffer from some period of high-stress, particularly just before school lockdown was announced and when school reopening was announced.
The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org.
Notes: The findings relate to around 131,000 teachers in lower-secondary schools.