How bad for your mental health is teaching?

The profession is often perceived as a stressful one with a heavy workload that impacts staff wellbeing. Now, new research – published first in Tes – gives detailed insights into the general levels of happiness and self-worth among those who work in education. Zofia Niemtus reports
30th April 2021, 12:00am
How Bad For Your Mental Health Is Teaching?


How bad for your mental health is teaching?

To ask whether teaching is a stressful job feels a bit like asking if the sky is blue. Received wisdom tells us that the workload is enormous and high-stakes accountability leads to intolerable pressure. As a result, it is believed that the mental health of staff is precarious at best. This leads to poor retention and difficulty in recruiting, which, in turn, make things worse for those left in the profession.

But is that what teaching is really like? That’s what a group of researchers set out to discover in compiling The mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England, which, they say, is the “most detailed and comprehensive investigation of teacher mental health and wellbeing” to date.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and published exclusively in Tes, it uses the latest figures available from huge datasets - including the Labour Force Survey, Annual Population Survey, Understanding Society, UK Biobank and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) - to explore the experiences of tens of thousands of teachers.

Report author John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics at UCL Institute of Education’s Social Research Institute, describes the project as “a big jigsaw puzzle of all the data that we can find out there”, while co-author Sam Sims, a lecturer in the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at UCL, explains that it is “basically all the data that is available, so it’s as comprehensive a picture as it’s possible to put together”.

That picture doesn’t include much data on the effect of the pandemic, unfortunately, as most of the datasets were created before Covid-19 hit, although one chapter does explore survey data on how the first lockdown affected wellbeing. But otherwise, it is able to offer a deep and unprecedented dive into the mental health of the profession, across time and across the world. So, what does it find?

Do teachers have worse mental health than those in other professions?

The researchers set out to answer this with a lot of information, pulling in statistics from 11 separate datasets. The largest of these was the Labour Force Survey from 2011 to 2018, with responses from 16,815 primary teachers, 16,243 secondary teachers, 3,288 staff in SEND (special educational needs and disability) settings and 2,509 headteachers. It looked at whether teachers reported more long-lasting mental health issues than those in other professions and found that, in comparison with the average across all professions (where 3.6 per cent report a lasting mental health problem), teachers had roughly the same experience, with 3.6 per cent of primary teachers, 3.4 per cent of secondary teachers and 3 per cent of headteachers reporting a lasting mental health problem. Staff in SEND settings did, however, have higher than average rates, at 5 per cent.

But the perception of the job taking a toll was evident in the responses relating to whether people felt that their career had been the cause of mental ill health. Against an average of 1.9 per cent across all professions, some 4.9 per cent of staff in SEND settings, 3.2 per cent of secondary teachers and 3 per cent of primary teachers said yes, although only 1.7 per cent of headteachers felt the same.

The next big mental health dataset was the Annual Population Survey (March 2011 and December 2018), bringing together responses from 5,841 primary teachers, 5,825 secondary teachers, 1,231 staff in SEND settings and 868 headteachers on the prevalence of anxiety, unhappiness, low life satisfaction and low self-worth. Again, teachers were very close to the average for each, with the only notable differences seen in headteachers’ anxiety (22.4 per cent compared with the average across professions, of 20.7) and the unhappiness of staff in SEND settings (24.5 per cent compared with the average of 23.1). Teachers’ levels of depression were also around the average of around 20 per cent (although levels for staff in SEND settings were once again higher, at 21.4 per cent).

The self-worth statistics highlight an interesting pattern among school staff, however: an average of 10.9 per cent of respondents across all professions reported feelings of low self-worth but only 5.4 per cent of primary teachers, 6.5 per cent of headteachers, 6.9 per cent of secondary teachers and 7 per cent of staff in SEND settings reported the same.

So, what does all this data tell us? Against conventional wisdom, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that teachers are particularly anxious or depressed, or experiencing lower levels of life satisfaction or poorer wellbeing outcomes when compared with those in other professions. And Jerrim says that while the profession does have higher levels of anxiety than some, demographics could explain this.

“There’s this view that stress and anxiety are higher in the teaching profession and, in some respects, that is true. But you see that mainly because of the demographic characteristics,” he says. “A large proportion of it is actually driven by gender [women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression].

“It’s still a female-dominated profession, and so, once you take those demographic characteristics into account - who goes into teaching - that helps tie things together. Is it because of the job or is it because of who selects into doing the job? That seems to be an important part of the story.”

Sims adds that once these demographics are controlled for, the differences between teaching and other professions are very small. “The critical thing here is that once you compare people who are otherwise similar on a bunch of characteristics, teaching doesn’t seem to stand out in terms of anxiety,” he says.

How do different stages of teaching compare for wellbeing?

So, what about the different areas of the professions? Are primary teachers happier than their secondary counterparts? Are newly qualified teachers (NQTs) under more pressure than their peers?

In terms of anxiety and happiness, there “weren’t huge differences between primary and secondary” in any of the datasets, Jerrim explains, although analysis of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that secondary teachers were more likely to flag admin and marking as causes of stress.

Sims proposes that this may be due to the nature of the schools themselves. “It’s not in this summary report but, in related projects, we compared the TALIS data on the quality of working conditions as reported by teachers across different phases, and two things that are related to job satisfaction - which is a slightly different thing to stress or mental health - are collaboration among staff in the schools and discipline,” he explains.

“And those are both markedly better in primary than in secondary. This is speculation rather than based on data, but I think it’s sort of plausible, in primary schools, that it’s possible for it to be a bit more tight knit, maybe, and so collaboration is potentially easier. And, in general, behaviour and discipline is just more of an issue in secondary.”

The data around headteachers, he continues, suggests that, for all of the pressure of the job, they do “come out quite well in general in many comparisons, including life satisfaction and self-worth”. But he points out that something known as survivor bias could be at work.

“For the headteachers, in particular, there’s an alternative explanation that we can’t probe into with the data that’s available: that anyone who really hates teaching beforehand probably quits before they get to a senior leadership position. So the people who are left as headteachers are the ones who like it. The people who remain have high levels of self-satisfaction because the others have been filtered out already.”

But what about NQTs at the opposite end of the career journey? While they work longer hours than their peers in other professions (an average 48.2 per week, compared with 39.6 for other lower-managerial workers) and only receive around £28 more a week on average to do so, they report higher levels of life satisfaction. Recently qualified teachers are just as satisfied with their lives as they were before entering the profession. But they don’t always feel that their efforts are appreciated, it seems.

“They are less likely to feel that, or agree with the statement that, hard work is rewarded within Britain today,” Jerrim says. “But, more generally, there’s no real change in their mental health and wellbeing, or life satisfaction, compared with when they were teenagers. There didn’t really seem to be any evidence of NQTs having worse mental health outcomes than other professions or particularly declining after entering teaching.”

But Sims urges caution on interpreting these figures, noting that they do not explore whether early-career teachers are stressed. “You have to be careful about the specific outcome that we’re looking at here,” he says.

“I would bet that if we did have data on stress, early-career teachers would be more stressed than early-career accountants. What we’re measuring is subtly but importantly different to stress.”

Are teachers happier when they leave the profession?

The report goes on to look at datasets measuring a series of outcomes - including levels of sleep and alcohol consumption, as well as self-reported levels of depression, anxiety and happiness - but finds “little evidence of a link between leaving teaching, lower prevalence of mental health problems and higher levels of general wellbeing”. There is one exception, however: job satisfaction.

“We find a fairly consistent improvement for those who have recently left the teaching profession,” the report states. “There is some suggestion that those who decide to quit teaching end up being somewhat happier in their work than those who choose to remain.

“Yet, critically, this does not seem to translate into greater levels of happiness in other areas of life, including satisfaction with health or happiness overall. Consequently, the benefits of leaving teaching for one’s happiness seem to be relatively minor and concentrated in satisfaction with work.”

However, Sims points out that “the opposite of survivor bias” could be at work here; the people who decide to leave are “the people who weren’t enjoying teaching”, so perhaps it’s no surprise that their working lives are better on the other side.

“The main takeaway, as far as we can see, is that the grass may not be greener,” Jerrim says. “I don’t think there’s great evidence on that either way, to be honest. But as far as we can see at the moment, I don’t think there’s much evidence that quitting leads to great improvements in mental health and wellbeing.”

What are the factors affecting the mental health of teachers?

The second half of the report explores the data on potential contributing factors to mental ill-health among teachers, and workload is, naturally, a major consideration.

Using data from more than 10,000 teachers, from five English-speaking jurisdictions (Australia, England, New Zealand, the US and Alberta, Canada), researchers found that the two aspects of teachers’ jobs that lead to the greatest increase in workload stress are lesson planning and marking, with increases in these leading to increases in stress in the workplace.

Interestingly, increases in other areas, such as time spent teaching and working with colleagues, did not have the same impact.

But although working hours remain high, the report says, this is a pattern that has been in place for a long time: there has been no notable change in total hours worked by teachers over the past 20 years, no notable increase in the proportion of teachers working during evenings and weekends over the past 15 years, and no change in time spent on specific tasks (such as marking and administration) over the past five years.

“Together, the evidence points towards a need to aim for a term-time working week for teachers of no more than around 50 hours, similar to the maximum allowed under the European Working Time Directive,” it states.

While the authors recognise that achieving this may not be easy, looking at how to reduce “marking and lesson planning” would be a good first step, they suggest.

The report also explores the issue of high-stakes accountability and how teacher wellbeing is linked to how far they are held responsible for pupil achievement.

But the ways that this stress was distributed across the profession was particularly interesting, Jerrim continues: “There was some evidence that stressed teachers tend to cluster together to some extent. It tends to be more concentrated in certain schools. And that’s based on international data, not just England.”

Another interesting point is that, while the data showed “only a weak relationship between how stressed headteachers feel about accountability and the stress felt by staff ”, there is “clear evidence of ‘emotional contagion’ of accountability-induced stress among staff within schools”.

Jerrim has an idea why this might be: “Maybe headteachers, if they are stressed, do a reasonably good job of protecting their own staff from those feelings, whereas there seems to be more circulation around teachers. That’s interesting from an intervention perspective as well, because if something is stressing teachers out in the same school, that’s where whole-school policies could come in to try to resolve those issues.”

It’s clear, Sims continues, that the decisions made by leaders “really matter for this stuff”.

“We know marking is very stressful and, by and large, when you see very high levels of marking, that’s usually a school policy,” he says. “And there’s a strong relationship between the quality of leadership and stress, job satisfaction, leaving the profession and so on. Teaching isn’t as bad as we perhaps thought, but where it’s bad for certain teachers in certain schools, it’s usually at the door of leaders.”

And, of course, there are the frequent changes from the government for both leaders and staff to contend with, Jerrim adds.

“You can see why teachers get really annoyed because changing things constantly does increase workload for potentially marginal benefits,” he says. “So what you really want, if you’ve got a new education secretary coming in, is for them to announce: ‘I’m not going to change anything for a while’. But the reality is that every new education secretary wants to move the furniture about and look busy. Hence all the changes in government policy.”

What can we take away from these findings?

Sims says that while the data does present a more positive picture than the common negative stereotypes would suggest, there are clear issues to address that could make the job more manageable for staff.

“So, on average, teaching isn’t a terrible thing to do but, in a significant minority of schools, teachers are having a pretty tough time because the schools aren’t doing a good job of looking after them,” he says.

“And despite the fact that our data shows that teaching isn’t much worse than it used to be or than other professions, on average, there are quite a lot of schools where the marking policy is dreadful or the support for behaviour management is dreadful. It is within the remit of school leaders to change that.”

And, Jerrim adds, it’s important to be aware of how those pervasive negative stereotypes may be having an impact of their own - “this conventional wisdom that teaching is so bad for your wellbeing and so bad for your mental health”, he says.

“As a young person, does that make you want to go into teaching? Does it make it an attractive profession? It potentially ends up putting people off, who could have been good teachers, from even considering it. It can also lead to emotional contagion. It’s almost acting as a barrier to helping solve some of the big issues in the profession.

“There’s a lot of focus around the negative aspects of teaching, the stress and anxiety, but there are other aspects of wellbeing, such as self-worth and even physical health, that get a lot less attention but have an impact. There’s a broader story to tell than the one conventional wisdom lays out.”

Zofia Niemtus is interim deputy commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 30 April 2021 issue under the headline “Is teaching bad for your mental health?”

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