Mental health fears as teacher stress rockets

24th February 2017 at 00:00
Feelings of guilt for selling pupils short rife as changing demands of job take toll

Nearly half of respondents to a poll on teacher wellbeing report that their mental health is ailing, fuelling fears that growing numbers are struggling to cope with the profession’s changing demands.

A significant proportion also takes medication because of their job, while the convener of a national mental health helpline has said that the demands of teaching are so exceptional that a counsellor should be stationed in every school.

The survey was started earlier this month by Jenny Harvey, a Fife special needs teacher, who was taken aback by the volume of responses – 778 at the last count.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day or resources that we need

Some 45 per cent said that their mental health was “poor” or “very poor”, and 15 per cent reported taking medication because of the stresses of their work.

Ms Harvey was surprised by some findings, such as almost every respondent having felt the “heavy burden” of guilt about the educational experience they offered pupils.

“We just want the best for our pupils and sometimes we feel more could be done for them,” she said.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day or resources that we need.”

Tony McLaren, the national co-ordinator of Breathing Space, the NHS mental health helpline in Scotland, told TESS of a rise in demand from schools for its services in the past five years, with specialist staff invited to speak to both teachers and pupils.

Rise in stress hotline calls

Although callers to Breathing Space did not always reveal their job, anecdotal evidence suggested that many calls came from teachers, with workload and work-life balance frequently mentioned, said Mr McLaren. The weight of being in a profession in which many people came to you with their problems also put a heavy load on teachers, he added.

“Teachers often laugh and joke about the demands of their job, but that often masks high stress levels,” said Mr McLaren. He added: “In an ideal world, every school would have a counsellor that any teacher or pupil could drop into.”


Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association president Euan Duncan said: “Any time that I speak to members in schools, they talk about how stressful they have found all the recent curriculum changes and how apprehensive they are feeling about what is coming next, with changes in assessment and governance.”

Workload remained the “number one culprit”, said Mr Duncan, but pay, “retirement uncertainty” and cuts to support staff were also factors in teacher stress.

The lack of control teachers have over their timetable, including breaks, makes it very difficult to take respite when it is needed

He added: “The lack of control teachers have over their timetable, including breaks, makes it very difficult to take respite when it is needed. In most occupations, you can shut your door and have a coffee if things get on top of you.”

The EIS union has seen increased casework around mental health, which general secretary Larry Flanagan described as “extremely worrying”. He added: “The severe workload pressure increasingly placed on staff is a likely contributory factor to the growing number of stress-related mental health issues that members are reporting.”

A Scottish government spokesman said that the administration was committed to reducing teacher workload and had undertaken a range of actions to achieve this. He added: “Continued engagement with the profession will play a critical role in making this happen.

“Mental health first-aid training to support educational staff and young people is being rolled out by Education Scotland and NHS Health Scotland.”

The government will also publish its 10-year mental health strategy in the coming weeks.

Pupils’ mental health has also been in the spotlight recently. Last year, TESS reported on research showing that support in schools was patchy and badly publicised, with pupils saying that mental health was not seen as a priority (“Schools failing pupils in child mental health crisis”, 22 July).


  • If you need to talk to someone, Breathing Space can offer support on 0800 838587. You can also contact the Education Support Partnership, a helpline dedicated to health and wellbeing for people working in education, on 08000 562 561. For more information, go to


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