5 ways schools can help teachers with anxiety

Teaching when you suffer from anxiety is tough – but school leaders can make adjustments to help, says Emma Stokes

Emma Stokes

Mental health: How schools can help teachers who suffer from anxiety

Teaching is an intense job, and the challenges can be different every day. For teachers with anxiety, this tough job can feel even tougher.

It is a common mistake to confuse someone having anxiety with feeling anxious. Everyone will have times of great stress when the normal response is to feel anxious, but this isn't what anxiety is.

The NHS defines the difference in its explanation: "Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. But some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives."

You can read more about anxiety in this NHS overview, and mental health charity Mind provides an information guide for anxiety.

Mental health: How common is anxiety among teachers?

Anxiety is one of the more common mental health conditions, and, according to data collected by Mind, every week in England six out of a hundred people are diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder.

The picture in schools mirrors this, with Education Support reporting in 2019 that 75 per cent of education staff said they had experienced anxiety symptoms in the past year.

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Schools will be used to making adjustments for their students who have anxiety, but are they being as flexible for their teachers and staff members who suffer from this condition? In my experience of working with teachers who have anxiety, small adjustments can have a huge impact to help manage their stress levels.

It's important to note that every adjustment should be developed through discussion with the member of staff, and be based upon their individual needs. 

How to help teachers with anxiety – five practical ideas

1. Share your plans to remove surprises

For some people with anxiety, feeling unprepared can heighten their symptoms. For many teachers, the Sunday night dread is amplified by anxiety, and can make the end of the weekend a really difficult time.

Leaders in schools can help to lessen these feelings by sharing planning with their staff, and ensuring that deadlines, announcements and important dates are communicated well in advance.

For some members of staff, it may be worth offering a Friday check-in, so they can run through what is coming up in the next week so they can switch off from school for the weekend.  

2. Develop a culture where mistakes are not the focus

Those with anxiety often revisit the same mistake over and over. Often to others – and even to the person with anxiety who is fixating upon the error – these mistakes are very small.

As a leader or colleague, you can help the person with anxiety to recognise when they are doing this, and then try to support them to move their thoughts away from the mistake.

Another way in which you can be supportive is by only giving feedback when specifically asked, and working towards developing a culture where mistakes are accepted and treated as learning points. 

3. Promote and encourage time to exercise

Physical activity is an excellent way to treat mental health problems, such as anxiety, because your body releases those all-important endorphins, which are the "happy hormones" of the body.

But when you've got a busy timetable and a pile of marking, it's easy to see why exercise can drop down the list of priorities.

Everyone who works in a school can help to support colleagues in their efforts to use exercise to promote good mental health by being positive about exercise and celebrating milestones.

Leaders should also be making sure that the work-life balance of staff allows time to be spent on sport and fitness.

4. Set work boundaries

A teacher’s to-do list is never-ending. This is part and parcel of being a teacher, but the work isn’t going anywhere.

It's important that leaders and colleagues have reasonable expectations of the staff. As a leader, it's good to encourage your team to have a cut-off point every day and stick to it. If you notice one of your team working particularly long hours, make sure you're addressing this as an issue of concern.

5. Ensure that staff feel they can talk to someone at work

It can be hard to make yourself vulnerable and open up about mental health with colleagues. No one wants to be perceived in a negative way.

However, dealing with anxiety alone can be overwhelming. It is important that someone with anxiety feels they can rely on non-judgemental people who can support them when their anxiety is hard to manage.

Check-in with your staff to see if they feel that they have a supportive colleague/member of SLT who they can trust, and encourage them to speak to them when they need to ask for help.

Emma Cate Stokes teaches and leads key stage 1 at a primary school in East Sussex. She tweets from @emmaccatt and blogs at emmacateteaching.com

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Emma Stokes

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