State of teachers’ health remains worrying despite emergence from Covid pandemic

Our 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that teachers’ mental health is getting worse - not better - in several areas, compared to a year ago at the height of the Covid pandemic.

News 25 November 2021 / 3 mins read

The number of UK teachers and education staff who are suffering both psychologically and physically due to their work is growing - despite perceptions that pressures reached their highest during the COVID crisis.

The 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index, an annual report by charity Education Support in conjunction with YouGov, found that teachers’ mental health is getting worse - not better - in several areas, compared to a year ago at the height of the Covid pandemic.

The report found that a growing number of teachers have reported behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms - including panic attacks, anxiety, depression, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, forgetfulness, overeating and tearfulness - as a result of pressures they face at work. That number stood at 77% this year, up from 74% in 2020.

According to the Index, one in five staff (19%) experienced panic attacks in the last year, among other symptoms linked to mental health. That was the same proportion as the previous year, suggesting that teachers’ mental health is not improving as many had hoped it would following the return to classrooms and a lifting of restrictions that piled pressure on teachers during the pandemic. That figure was significantly higher for those who had been in the sector for 0-2 years compared to those who had been in it for longer.    

Work-life balance and excessive workloads remain persistent issues relating to symptoms of poor mental health, but the proportion of teachers and staff citing Covid-19 as the factor contributing to poor mental health soared from 33% in 2020 to 62% in 2021.

The Index, which is based on surveys of 3,354 education staff, is the fifth of its kind and comes following a particularly difficult time for the teaching sector. It found that four in ten (38%) teachers reported experiencing mental health issues in the past academic year, up seven percentage points on 2020. More than three-quarters (77%) of all staff experienced symptoms of poor mental health linked to their work, with the proportion reporting psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety and panic attacks standing at 51%.

The 2021 Index also highlights the stress on headteachers and senior leaders and the continuing effect that Covid-19 is having on schools and those who work within them. The proportion of senior leaders who said they experienced mental health issues in the past academic year rose from 29% in 2020 to 41% this year, while 38% said their symptoms could be a sign of exhaustion.

Of those reporting symptoms of poor mental health, 78% of heads and senior leaders attributed them to a poor work-life balance while the same proportion gave the reason as excessive workload (78%). The impact of COVID-19 on heads and senior leaders’ mental health also increased significantly from last year (33%) to 62% this year.

One primary school headteacher who recently spoke to Education Support said while the wider community is “COVID-weary” and desperate to return to ‘normality’, the situation remains desperate for frontline staff.

She said: “The message from Ofsted and the Government is that the pandemic is over, everything’s back to normal. But we’re so far from that in schools – we’re still living in the heart of it. Every day I make decisions that scare me. I’m not a medic. I’m a teacher, but everyone expects me to be a Covid expert. I’m afraid that one day I’ll make the wrong decision and someone will get hurt.”

The worrying pressure on teachers’ mental health and wellbeing is compounded by a lack of support and training, with teachers suggesting that their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) is inadequate in preparing them for the challenges of teaching.

According to the 2021 Index, three-quarters of teachers (74%) think their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses do not prepare them well to manage their own wellbeing, while six in ten (61%) said they did not receive sufficient guidance about their mental health and wellbeing at work. Only four in ten (39%) said they received sufficient guidance (7 percentage points lower than in 2020).

One R.E. teacher who contacted Education Support’s helpline said: “I had suicidal thoughts, started blacking out and having several panic attacks a day. Education Support carried me when I couldn’t walk. It really was a lifeline - by making those calls I’m still alive.”

Education Support, which provides a 24-hour helpline for teachers and support staff, is urging ministers to heed the report’s findings, warning that ongoing anxiety and stress - potentially leading to burn-out - may mean teachers are unable to perform their roles effectively. Resulting absences, presenteeism and sub-optimal teaching and learning outcomes are not only catastrophic for the profession, but impact more widely at the very time the sector is striving to deliver the Government’s education recovery plans.

The Index shows that teachers feel more needs to be done to support the sector, including reducing unnecessary paperwork (48%) and greater recognition of the intensity of the work environment within teaching (41%).

Sinéad Mc Brearty, chief executive of Education Support, whose helpline supported 9,570 cases last year alone, said:

“The 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index shows that education staff continue to face impossibly high demands and are suffering as a consequence. The pandemic may appear ‘over’ for the wider community, but this report shows that isn’t the case for teachers and senior leaders. Rather than seeing improvements to their mental health in 2021, the pressure has ratcheted up further. This report is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the future of education in the UK.”

The Index also analysed the wellbeing of teachers and education staff using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS). It found their score stood at 43.90. According to the scale, scores between 41 and 45 should be considered in high risk of psychological distress and increased risk of depression, putting teachers firmly in a very worrying bracket.

Education Support is calling for more support from Government, echoing findings within the Index which showed that teachers thought the three biggest issues the Government should focus on to improve the workforce’s wellbeing are:

  • Reducing unnecessary paperwork or data gathering (48%)
  • Reducing the volume of workload (43%)
  • Recognising the high intensity or high pressure work environment within education settings (41%)

Sinéad Mc Brearty added: “Teachers and support staff have never been needed more, by their pupils, but also the entire country. The success of the education recovery plans depends on a resilient teaching sector that is supported and resourced to meet the needs of children and young people in the wake of pandemic disruption. 

“The Government must recognise that education is a high-pressure environment and provide adequate training and support for everyone working in the sector. Steps have been taken to address this recently but more needs to be done, urgently.”

Notes to Editors

Sinéad Mc Brearty is available for interview. Please contact Ellen Manning at EMPR on 07515 717173 or to organise.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 3354 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th June - 20th July 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK Teachers.