An investigation by Tes Scotland has revealed that mental health problems are causing teacher absences to rise across Scotland and are often the most common reason for teachers being too ill to work.
Even small councils can rack up bills of more than £1 million to provide cover over a few years, and there are calls for more pre-emptive support for teachers.
The picture is not uniform, however, with absences reducing in some areas, which commentators say may be a result of growing awareness about mental health.
Data was obtained from 17 councils, using Freedom of Information legislation, with some responses suggesting that mental health problems were increasingly common.
In West Lothian, for example, sick days taken by teachers for “mental and behavioural” reasons peaked at 3,497 in 2016-17 (data since 2010-11 was requested from councils), the most common reason for sickness absence, accounting for a third of all teacher sick days. The financial impact could be substantial: during the seven-year period, the cost to Midlothian Council – which has only six mainstream secondary schools – of teacher absence because of work-related stress was more than £1.2 million.
However, the 91 separate absences of Falkirk teachers as a result of “mental wellbeing” problems was the lowest over the seven years, although still amounting to 3,114 days. In East Ayrshire, the 2,068 days taken by teachers in 2016-17 as a result of stress represented a three-year low.
Euan Duncan, a guidance teacher and former president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, who helped devise the questions the investigation put to councils, said some “more enlightened” local authorities were taking pre-emptive action to improve mental health by, for example, surveying teachers’ views anonymously. Self-referrals to support services were also becoming more common, he said, reducing the chances of teachers feeling stigmatised.
But Mr Duncan added: “Teachers are terribly proud and like to think they’re bullet-proof. Outside the classroom, they are still often reluctant to open up and show what they think might be seen as weakness.”
Billy Watson, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), said the increasing absences related to mental health might be a positive sign that more teachers are asking for help, because there is now less stigma and “a more open approach to mental health and wellbeing”.
A Scottish government spokesman said that its new mental health strategy was attempting to ensure that “mental health has parity of esteem with physical health”.
He added: “We are committed to reducing teacher workload and are taking action, working with councils and the unions.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 22 September edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents.