Coping with the unknown | Education Support
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Coping with the unknown - teachers and education staff

Coping with the unknown

15th July 2020

In ordinary times, the start of a new school year heralds great apprehension, anticipation and anxiety. Our readiness to cope is, regardless of our skills and experience, about how well prepared and resilient we feel both mentally and physically to deal with the unknowns and demands of the school term that lie ahead.

Given that this September will be anything other than ordinary, with a great many unknowns, the anxieties and pressures will be heightened to a totally different level. Added to that, coping with the pandemic, may mean our resilience is lower than usual.  A recent YouGov poll revealed that teachers are more likely than any other key workers to experience anxiety, issues with concentration and feelings of hopelessness during the Covid 19 pandemic. The survey found that half of education staff (55%) reported feeling ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ anxious as a result of their work as the crisis has continued, ahead of healthcare workers at 53 %.

Mental health support will be an absolute priority for school leaders and staff alike in September. What should leaders be looking for and aware of? How can school leaders support staff in the Autumn?

A lack of control over situations or the ability to change them is a key driver of stress.  Change and feelings of uncertainty can also trigger anxiety. That’s very much the case at present in all our lives and it’s important as leaders in the workplace to let staff know that these feelings are normal and to be expected.. High levels of stress can make any of us feel less able to cope and when we feel there is little support from managers, colleagues, peers, friends or family it is far more likely that we will find the stress we are experiencing to be unmanageable. Many of our usual coping mechanisms including freely seeing close family and friends and the ritual of going to work which can help give a sense of structure and familiarity is either not possible or looks very different. 

In our specially commissioned video Coping with Bereavement’, Dr Erin Hope Thompson, Director of the Loss Foundation, comments: “Loss is everywhere and it makes us feel more vulnerable.” Leading, motivating and supporting staff is difficult in this time of crisis when leaders are also struggling themselves but it is important to let staff know that it is ok to feel vulnerable and that there are ways we can ease this. Encourage staff to share how they feel with others, in the workplace or at home. For those members of school teams who may have lost someone or are affected by others’ loss, be aware of this and remind staff and colleagues that help is out there. 

Teachers and other school staff may be dealing directly with grief and loss, where someone close has died or lost a loved one to coronavirus or be supporting students who have been affected. In our video ‘Coping with bereavement,’ Dr Hope Thompson states that in these situations it’s important to give people space and to let others know they need this too. For anyone who has experienced loss, it is important to create outlets; whether that’s space to talk to friends, close colleagues or a professional, to reflect and process, journal; whatever that person needs and finds helpful for them. It can be useful for leaders to model that it is ok to feel upset and that staff will be supported if they are struggling. 

Dealing with feelings around bereavement and loss can be particularly difficult for people in leadership positions. It can be easier to carry on managing the current situation than reflecting on difficult feelings of loss and grief. However, this may not be helpful in the long-term. If we don’t allow ourselves to have outlets for our emotions, this can lead to a variety of symptoms such as a loss of concentration and/or problems sleeping.

More generally, show how you make your own mental health a priority, share how you do this and make it clear that all our mental health has to come first. It is important that school leaders model that we should be discussing our mental health if we need and want to.

Any teachers, school leaders and other school staff who are feeling stressed and anxious during these uncertain times can call our confidential helpline. Available to anyone working in education, it’s open 24/7.No matter what you’re going through, you can talk to a trained counsellor. Call 08000 562 561.

We have created a range of mental health resources for all teachers, school leader and other staff during the COVID-19 crisis. View the resources here.

This article first appeared in Sec-Ed/Headteacher Update Back to School Guide July 2020.

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff, in schools, colleges and universities, who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

What can you do?

If you’re in a position to help others in these extraordinary times, please consider making a donation so that we can continue to answer the increasing number of desperate calls and grants applications we are receiving. Thank you so much.