What if half the profession needs to stop and refuel?

With stress and mental health problems rising, we can't just assume that teachers will keep going, says Sinéad McBrearty

Sinead McBrearty

Coronavirus and mental health: What if teachers burn out under the stress of working in the pandemic?

Teachers and school staff have demonstrated huge amounts of courage, creativity and compassion this year, by continuing to teach both remotely and in the classroom

They have overcome massive barriers to the day-to-day business of teaching: government guidelines have lacked clarity, and changed often; students, parents and colleagues have been stressed, uncertain and anxious; there are real, human concerns about personal safety, bereavement and pupil wellbeing. 

It’s therefore no surprise that this year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index shows that more teachers than previously are suffering with poor mental health. We’ve seen significant rises in symptoms such as insomnia, tearfulness and difficulty concentrating. 

A secondary school teacher told us: “I felt terrible taking time off for stress – leaving my students, and knowing my colleagues were covering my classes. But I had no choice.

"When you burn out, there’s nowhere to go. When the tank is empty, you have to stop and refuel. What happens if half the profession have to stop and refuel?”

Coronavirus: Teachers suffering stress

No wonder stress levels are high, especially among senior leaders, with a big jump in stress by October. Many teachers have told us about having to make difficult budgetary decisions – such as between buying antibacterial soap or paying for catch-up sessions for lost learning.

Staff retention continues to be a major issue, with more senior leaders considering leaving the profession than ever before. 

One headteacher told us that it’s like “being on amber alert all the time”, which is clearly an unsustainable way to work. Who among us can say they do their best work when exhausted or emotionally depleted? 

Of course, this problem isn’t unique to teachers. Plenty of people up and down the country are under pressure and experiencing stress, thanks to the pandemic. But the education workforce deserves particular attention because their commitment, care and teaching will provide pathways for children and young people through this crisis. National recovery depends on great teaching. 

Mental health concerns

As we consider the impact of another year of significant pressure on school and college staff, we must also look at the wider environment, where estimates show that child poverty is rising.The number of homeless children, and those in temporary accommodation, is also on the increase. The mental health of children and young people is increasingly a subject of concern for all of us.

All of these factors affect children, their ability to learn and their life chances. And these factors bring us back to schools and colleges. 

It is teachers and education staff who are on the front line, trying to balance the needs of increasingly vulnerable pupils, while knowing that the highest rates of Covid-19 transmission are among the young

Teachers' jobs are more challenging, the stakes are much higher and there isn’t enough money to support both education and essential health and safety. With stress and mental health symptoms where they are, it would be naive and unrealistic to assume that teachers can just keep going. 

For this reason, we will continue to advocate for mental health and wellbeing to be at the centre of education policymaking. 

Sinéad McBrearty is the chief executive of the charity Education Support. If you or a colleague are having a difficult time, contact Education Support’s free helpline 

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