Staff in schools in the UK and in many other countries are in the centre of a sustained crisis. Clearly, workers in health services are under the greatest pressure, and the situation remains extremely difficult for those people working in care homes. Alongside health and care home staff, teachers and other school staff are key workers tasked with continuing on the ‘frontline’ in the COVID crisis.
With reports of a tide of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety affecting many health care workers, one can’t help but wonder if a similar plight awaits some school staff, as their stressful working conditions continue without reprieve.
One UK teacher commenting on social media in early January 2021, stated:
I lasted five mornings in a reception classroom with no masks allowed and no social distancing at all before being bedridden for three and a half days. Pure luck it wasn’t Covid. That and other issues over safety (mine and the children’s) led to me deciding after only about five weeks that I would leave.
Once I left it dawned on me how much cognitive dissonance I’d had to use just to be there, and how badly it had affected my mental health to be constantly going to a place and doing things that my brain was screaming out to me were horribly unsafe.”
Apart from living with the risks of themselves contracting COVID whilst working without PPE in classrooms full of children and young people from a range of households, school staff are having to try to juggle a plethora of near-impossible pressures:
Lack of government support and fear of further last-minute diktats to schools; working with colleagues who are also under stress; covering staff absences; dealing with feelings of guilt if taking time off due to COVID or due to other physical or mental ill health; trying to support students with their stress and anxiety; delivery of learning online while many children lack access to technology; delivering learning in class with relatively high levels of attendance even during a national lockdown; managing the logistics of social distancing; responding to the demands of stressed parents; budgetary pressures. The list could continue…
On top of all the huge stressors directly related to work, staff may have their own families and children to look after, parents and other relatives who are at risk, or those whose loss they are grieving.
In this context, the 2020 Education Support Network Teacher Wellbeing Index from the first few months of the pandemic found that:
Education professionals in the U.K. displayed much higher levels of depression (32%) than the general population (19%) (ONS, 2020a). They also reported higher levels of symptoms such as: • difficulty concentrating • insomnia • tearfulness
The report stated that such symptoms may become associated with clinically diagnosed mental health conditions over time.
In addition, 52% of education professionals (and 59% of senior leaders) had considered leaving the profession due to pressures on their health and wellbeing.
By late November 2020, Sinéad McBrearty, Chief Executive of Education Support stated that:
With stress and mental health symptoms where they are, it would be naive and unrealistic to assume that teachers can just keep going.”
The situation for educator wellbeing in the UK was dire enough before the pandemic. In a blog post I wrote in early 2020 before the pandemic had hit globally, titled Mental Health in Schools: The Issue of Teacher Mental Health I noted that:
With the UK’s teaching profession haemorrhaging as more and more teachers burnout and walk away from the incessant demands placed upon them, the crisis in our education system is borne out by record numbers of teaching professionals seeking support for their mental health.”
Even before the pandemic, there often wasn’t the time or the budget, or sometimes the will, to really tackle the issue of staff mental health and wellbeing in meaningful ways. That crisis is now even more acute. I know of many school staff who feel at breaking point or close to it.
I have written previously of my own decision in 2019 to leave full-time work in schools, after an 18 year career which had culminated in suffering symptoms of burnout:
Firefighting in school on a daily basis, and then returning home to continue working in evenings and on weekends in a bid to keep on top of an ever-growing to-do list, I was left with no semblance of work/life balance. My own physical and mental health deteriorated as I approached burnout, leaving me less and less able to serve the children in my care.”
If we are to empower schools to improve children’s mental health, we have to find meaningful ways of taking better care of our teachers.
Children’s mental health and teacher mental health go hand in hand; you can’t improve one without tackling the other.”
This is even more true now.
The reality is that for both staff and students, there often aren’t any quick fixes when it comes to mental health. That’s the inconvenient truth.
It’s with this reality in mind that we wrote the evidence-based Staff Mental Health & Wellbeing Programme containing proven psychotherapeutic strategies to bolster and improve mental health through a sustained 15-week programme, in a bid to provide solid support for the psychological wellness of school staff in the wake of the unprecedented situation they now find themselves in.
There is an ever-worsening mental health crisis in our schools, afflicting both students and staff. Without policies to acknowledge and alleviate teacher stress through the COVID pandemic and to reverse the resulting impact on staff mental health, it will be difficult, if not impossible to tackle the crisis in children’s and young people’s mental health.
Rather than superficial and piecemeal initiatives around staff wellbeing, systemic changes are urgently needed for educators to feel genuinely validated and considered by policymakers within government and in schools. Only if this happens can staff in turn help mitigate the mental health effects of the pandemic on the children and adolescents in their care.
If it fails to happen, as currently seems likely, a mass exodus of experienced teachers and school leaders from schools seems inevitable, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education and mental wellbeing of many children and young people will be even more devastating.
If you’re seeking sustained ways to improve the mental health of your staff, our evidence-based 15 week Staff Mental Health & Wellbeing Programme, written by a Psychotherapist and an experienced SENDCo/Senior Leader with expertise in mental health, is full of practical strategies for the COVID crisis and beyond. You and your staff will benefit from skills drawn from evidence-based psychotherapeutic approaches: CBT, DBT, CFT, Mindfulness.
Ava S. Hasan
Founder of Mentally Well Schools www.mentallywellschools.co.uk An online platform of free mental health and wellbeing resources, paid evidence-based programmes and support for busy schools, provided by a Psychotherapist and an experienced SENDCo/Senior Leader.
P.S. If you have something to say in response to this post, please make a comment below. We’d welcome your thoughts!
P.P.S. This post is also published on Medium.