As the new academic year approaches and teaching staff up and down the country are preparing to return to work, many are already dreading the prospect of the new term.
Why is this? I hear you ask. Haven’t teaching staff had it good since the COVID-19 lockdown and haven’t they just had six weeks of summer holiday? No, absolutely not! Many teachers haven’t had a break since February; they have been teaching the children of key workers under difficult conditions, they have been planning and executing tasks online to ensure the continued learning of their pupils, they have been making difficult decisions about exam marks and they have been planning for the return of students to a very different type of school day this September.
Many people aren’t aware that one in twenty people working in education are suffering from poor mental health, and sadly this number is on the rise. Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Survey from 2019 confirmed that work-related anxiety and depression was at an all-time high within the education sector. Now add to this the strain of working during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is a chance to act and do something about it.
A Challenging Career Choice
It has long been known that teaching is a stressful and challenging career choice, but the additional burden of recruitment and job retention issues, long hours and declining pupil behaviour has seen a sharp rise in mental health issues including work-related stress, anxiety and poor sleep patterns leading to higher than normal rates of absenteeism amongst teaching staff.
Whilst the DFE recognise that something has to change and confirm that there is action underway to improve the work-life balance for teachers, the support network is not adequate, and there are long-lasting mental health problems now affecting a high percentage of teachers.
The added pressures of COVID-19
With a lack of control over situations being a key driver of stress, and feelings of uncertainty triggering anxiety or panic attacks, the new school year this year is going to be as far from ordinary as we can possibly imagine so we need to be incredibly aware of the increased burden of stress.
At this time more than ever before, school leaders need to be promoting mental health initiatives amongst staff members to ensure that heightened feelings of anxiety and stress do not lead to absenteeism as teaching staff find themselves unable to work, which will only add to the burden of those who remain.
What can we do to help ourselves and others?
It is good to understand the signs of stress both in yourself and your colleagues, and creating an environment where you can openly speak about mental health issues or stress can be an incredibly important release for people who may be suffering in silence.
No matter how much people may try to cover them up, there are often signs that people may be under significant stress from either work or personal related issues, and it is good to recognise them so that they can be dealt with. The following list names just a few that you may recognise in yourself and your colleagues:
Appearing tired, irritable or even forgetful due to sleep deprivation caused by worrying about mounting pressures.
Feeling overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks, which can also lead to becoming tearful and having a sense that you cannot cope.
Having poor concentration and being easily distracted.
The feeling of a “low mood” that cannot be lifted.
Some people may not always feel comfortable talking about feelings, but group discussions where some people are happy to share experiences can often help others to open up and participate.
Actively promoting a culture of wellbeing and good mental health initiatives in your workplace is also a way of checking in with colleagues and staff – it may be as simple as an open question in a team meeting as what has made people happy over the holidays. This light touch approach can make people feel engaged with and more comfortable about talking about their feelings.
We may not always be able to take on additional workload ourselves or lessen the burden for colleagues, but having a release and being able to talk about the issues that we are facing and how it makes us feel can give us a release valve that we need. Sometimes it is just as simple as knowing that we are not facing problems alone.
At the end of the day, we must all remember that looking after our mental health and the mental health needs of our colleagues should be a part of every workday.