Teaching unions are warning of an “epidemic of stress” as research revealed that 3,750 teachers were signed off on longterm sick leave last year because of pressure of work, anxiety and mental illness.
Figures obtained through a mass freedom of information request show a 5% rise on the year before, revealing that one in 83 teachers spent more than a month off work in 2016-17.
Altogether 1.3 million days have been taken off by teachers for stress and mental health reasons in the last four years, including around 312,000 in 2016-17, the figures compiled by the Liberal Democrats show.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, warned of an “epidemic of stress”.
“Teachers work more unpaid overtime than any other profession,” she said. “Classroom teachers routinely work 55 hours or over a week. School leaders routinely work over 60 hours a week.
“And it is not just the amount of work. It is the pressures of a punitive and non-productive accountability system.”
Bousted said the number of ways in which a school could be deemed to be failing had ballooned in recent years – and there was relentless pressure to demonstrate even minute progress. She said that often came at the cost of “real improvements”, describing English children as some of the “most over-assessed in the modern world”.
She added that schools had been bombarded with constant changes to the curriculum and assessment regimes. “It has been a relentless policy onslaught which has left teachers rocking from stress and exhaustion.”
Bousted warned that the problem had contributed to a steep decline in teacher training applications, despite expensive advertising campaigns.
“You’ve got half a million teachers in England and Wales. Everyone is someone’s mother or father, son or daughter, aunt or friend, and they see the stress,” she said. “So you can’t talk up the profession when people see the reality.”
One assistant head at a large inner-city primary school said she felt forced to leave due to the relentless workload. Speaking anonymously, she pointed to the need to plan in immense detail for a range of 30 different abilities in a class, which could be overwhelming. The workload was in addition to meetings, marking and handling of questions from colleagues that all fell outside school hours.
“It’s a relentless hamster wheel with minute-by-minute stress. You wake up in the night with your mind filled with 30 children who mean so much to you,” she said. “You want the best for them, you want them to do well and be safe and happy. And the list scrolls in your head of all the things that have to be done before they come to you at 8.50am in the morning.”
The research was carried out by the Liberal Democrats, who sent a request for data to 152 English councils. Eighty-two responded, while 53 said they did not hold the information and 17 did not reply. That means the overall figures are likely to be even worse.
Layla Moran, the party’s education spokeswoman, said: “These figures lay bare the impossible pressures our teachers are being put under. It is simply unacceptable that those working tirelessly to do the best for our children are seeing their mental health affected as a result.”
She spoke of “story after story” of teachers warning of burnout. “These are no longer just the rare or most extreme cases – they are increasingly common,” she said. “This must be wake-up call to the new education secretary, Damian Hinds.” Moran added that the issue was fuelling a teacher recruitment and retention crisis.
The charity Mind has a workplace wellbeing index that has shown public sector workers are more likely to say their mental health is poor than their private sector counterparts, with over half reporting that they felt anxious at work on several occasions over the past month.
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, said the onus was on employers to support staff. “In small doses, stress can be a good thing, helping us focus and meet deadlines,” she said. “But prolonged exposure to stress, day in, day out, can lead to serious physical and mental health problems.”
Julian Stanley, chief executive of the education support partnership, said the figures reflected his organisation’s recent research that found three-quarters of school and college staff had experienced “psychological, physical or behavioural symptoms because of work”. He said that was significantly higher than for the overall population and pointed to budget cuts, fewer staff, bigger class sizes and recruitment difficulties as causes.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Teachers play an important role in our society, and there are now more teachers in our schools than ever before – 15,500 more since 2010.
“We continue to work with teachers, unions and Ofsted to tackle unnecessary workload and challenge unhelpful practices that create extra work, which includes a programme of targeted support for schools.
“Guidance to governing bodies is clear that they have a responsibility to take work-life balance into account when managing staff. Where staff are struggling we trust headteachers to take action to tackle the causes of stress and ensure they have the support they need.”
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