Mental Health Awareness Week begins today, 15 May. Teachers and staff in schools have a crucial role in supporting the mental health of children and young people. But are we providing teachers with the resources and conditions to enable them to do so?
Teachers play a vital role in helping our children and young people grow into well-rounded individuals. However, teaching is extremely stressful, with long hours, heavy workloads and high levels of responsibility. In addition, the impact on teachers’ mental health before, during and after inspections by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) has become mentally damaging.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, it is important to recognise the impact that these challenges have on teachers. They take a toll on their mental health, leading to stress, anxiety, depression and burnout. There is an unprecedented crisis in retention and recruitment, caused primarily by teachers leaving the profession because they are mentally unwell.
Teachers are struggling with their mental health
The death of Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary School, who ended her own life after her school was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’ is a tragic reminder of the pressure that headteachers are under. The Beyond Ofsted inquiry under Jim Knight promises wide-reaching reform. A review by the inquiry of the causes of teachers’ mental ill-health is vital.
When teachers are struggling with their mental health, it affects the quality of education that they are able to provide. Teachers who are dealing with their own mental health issues may have difficulty managing their classrooms and maintaining a positive and engaging learning environment. Their ability to support pupils who are struggling with mental health issues is also reduced. If the teacher is unable to create a healthy and supportive learning environment, where students can thrive academically and emotionally, it has a significant impact on their academic and emotional development.
Mental health problems among teachers are increasing each year. In December 2022, the teachers’ charity Education Support released its annual survey, The Teacher Wellbeing Index. It revealed that 75% of staff are stressed (84% of senior leaders and 72% other staff) and that 47% always go into work when unwell (61% of senior leaders and 45% other staff).
Some 36% of staff (39% of school leaders and 37% other staff) have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year and 78% of staff have experienced symptoms of mental ill-health as a result of their work (87% of senior leaders and 76% other staff). The overall wellbeing score of all staff is 44.01% as compared to the national average in each of three countries of England, Wales and Scotland.
So, what can teachers and school leaders do to improve their mental health?
The title of this article, Teacher: heal yourself is adapted from the saying ‘Physician, heal thyself’ which originates from the Bible (Luke 4:23). It suggests that, just as a doctor is unable to heal their patients if they themselves are ill, taking care of yourself is an essential step in being able to help others effectively.
The teacher wellbeing seesaw
I like to represent school staff mental health as a seesaw. On one end is self-care – teachers taking personal action to improve their own mental wellbeing. This might include exercising, practising mindfulness, going for a walk, having a work cut-off point each day, talking issues through with a partner or friend.
On the other end of the seesaw is organisational wellbeing – the care the school takes of teachers so that they have a better work-life balance – such as limiting the length of meetings, having an embargo on sending emails after a certain time in the day, reducing paperwork, supporting staff who have family emergencies.
If the care a teacher takes of themselves is equal to the care the school takes of them, the seesaw is balanced.
However, if teachers are taking care of themselves and the school as an organisation is not taking care of them, the self-care side of the seesaw will hit the ground.
On the other hand, if the school is taking care of their teachers and teachers are not taking care of themselves, the school care side of the seesaw will hit the ground.
So, good teacher mental health is a balance between staff taking care of themselves and the school looking after them.
Self-care and school care are inter-related. One affects the other. A seesaw only works if each person pushes upwards with their feet when their end reaches the ground. If the users are of equal weight, the seesaw will balance.
When self-care and school care are both valued – given equal weight – and staff are supported to take care of themselves, a balance between the two will be achieved. In caring for its staff, the school enables teachers to take better care of their mental health and to achieve a work-life balance.
In 2019, I interviewed Jeremy Hannay, headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School in Southall, London, for my book Cultures of Staff Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools. This is what he had to say about the importance of looking after his teachers:
“There is no pupil wellbeing, there’s no pupil achievement, there’s no pupil collaboration, there’s no pupil collective responsibility, there’s no pupil anything, until the adults experience it first… it’s quite a simple equation – if we’re not putting our adults in a soil that is nutrient rich – that will allow them to flourish into whoever they want to be as an educator, they have no chance of doing that effectively and sustainably in a classroom of children.
“Because… very often as a child you have to watch somebody love something before you can learn to love yourself. That is a nutrient that gets overlooked in many schools – that we need to make sure as leaders that we take care of the people who take care of the pupils.”
Mental health in the workplace
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) report Health and Wellbeing at Work 2022: The view from employees confirms that schools are not unique in needing to provide support for staff. As Figure 3 from the report below shows, 40% of employees in the private sector feel that their organisation does not support their mental health. Inadequate training and lack of resources are often cited as reasons why mental health support is lacking in the workplace and this is often the case in schools.
Schools and mental health support
So, how can schools develop their support for staff? The suggestions below come from teachers and schools themselves. They can also be adapted for any workplace.
- Appoint a wellbeing and mental health lead. The Department for Education (DfE) provides funded senior mental health lead training for all schools in England.
- Find out from an anonymised survey what is causing staff mental ill-health.
- Draw up a short-term 12 month plan to begin to address the issues identified in the survey, with a longer 3-year plan for future development. Make this a rolling programme which is reviewed and revised yearly. Avoid ‘nice to have’ initiatives which have little impact on the culture of the school.
- Identify high-stakes accountability measures designed to monitor or judge, including those created for Ofsted. Revise or remove them. They might include hierarchical lesson observations conducted by leaders; rigid marking policies; over-bureaucratic and judgemental performance management processes; excessive documentation.
- Issue the anonymised staff survey every 12 months to keep an eye on how things are going.
- Create a talking culture where any member of staff can talk through problems.
Other ways in which schools can care for their staff:
- Providing access to mental health resources, such as counselling or therapy services.
- Offering mental health days or other flexible work arrangements to support employees in managing their mental health.
- Creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture that encourages open communication about mental health and reduces stigma.
- Educating senior leaders and employees on mental health issues and how to recognise and respond to signs of distress. Level 2 First Aid for Mental Health qualifications can play a role here.
- Offering employee assistance programs that provide confidential support and resources for mental health concerns.
Some of these strategies require financial support and schools are struggling with funding. However, as with any organisation, the cost of not supporting teachers’ mental health, resulting in staff absence or staff leaving, far outweighs the cost of investing in their mental wellbeing.
Teachers can only heal themselves if their schools provide a healing environment. The seesaw must balance.