The idea that teachers are suffering an epidemic of worked-related stress – with an inevitable impact on recruitment and retention – is well documented.
Workload is the factor most commonly cited as an explanation. But those helping teachers with mental health problems believe the causes could be more complicated.
Teachers have always worked hard, they point out. What is new is what they describe as a culture of constant surveillance.
Teachers feel that they are not trusted to do their jobs well, and that they are not in control of what their job entails. They are also subject to a range of external pressures, from curriculum changes to accountability processes. And this leads to poor mental health.
“It’s kind of like a cocktail, really,” says Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Education Support Partnership. “All these things are combining and weaving together, in a way that isn’t necessarily healthy. It’s creating a perfect storm of issues.”
A survey by the charity conducted last year showed just how widespread the problem had become.
Jonathan Glazzard, professor of education at the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, at Leeds Beckett University, has interviewed large numbers of teachers about their mental health.
“Teachers go into teaching knowing that it’s going to be hard work,” he says. “That’s what they sign up to.
“But it’s about not being trusted to do their jobs. That’s what creates poor mental health.”
Chris Kyriacou, professor of educational psychology at the University of York, agrees. “Schools at the moment are very pressured environments,” he says. “It’s almost a punitive regime, through league tables, through Ofsted inspections. We’re really making teachers feel under a lot of pressure.”
Many of Glazzard’s interviewees spoke about the relentless focus on academic standards in schools. This, in turn, led to increased scrutiny by senior leaders.
“Teachers get anxious about whether they’re good enough,” Glazzard says. “They get anxious about whether their pupils’ progress is good enough, about whether they’re going to keep their jobs.
“They feel they can’t do anything without being watched. Their jobs depend on how they perform in those multiple mechanisms of surveillance.”
It is not only headteachers who don’t leave teachers to get on with their jobs. Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, points out that the government, too, dictates how teachers’ professional lives should progress. “A lot of stress is caused by poor management of change,” she says. “At schools, the change is really driven by the government. Teachers often feel that they have very little control over what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Their sense of professionalism is becoming eroded.”
This pressure is then exacerbated by the funding crisis. “There’s role creep,” Kinman adds. “Teachers are expected to get more involved in pastoral care.
“And the job itself has become more intense. Even though your working hours haven’t increased considerably, you’re expected to do more in those hours. It all adds up to an inability to switch off.”
The funding crisis affects staff in other ways, too. The Education Support Partnership regularly hears from teachers who have seen colleagues made redundant, and fear that they might be next.
“Teachers can feel they’re under threat because of school cutbacks,” Stanley says. “There’s fear of losing their job.
“But some are afraid of showing any kind of vulnerability. They have to be performing their best, all the time.”
But it is precisely this pressure to perform, Kinman says, that takes its toll on teachers. “It’s a mixture of feeling exhausted and depleted,” she says. “Feeling cut off from the people you work with – seeing them all as a faceless mass. If you don’t make that connection with your pupils then you don’t get that feeling of satisfaction. Then you get a lack of personal accomplishment. And that becomes harder and harder.”