Workload epidemic? Avoid the tipping point

Looking after your mental health as a teacher is crucial, especially given the workload challenges we are facing. Our CEO Julian Stanley offers his advice.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, the author explores how little things can make a big difference, defining a tipping point as being a moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point. He gives a range of examples including how a trend, political movement or even acts of crime can be extrapolated for better or for worse from the very simplest of beginnings.Julian Stanley sitting at a table

I mention this because it feels to me that a “boiling point” is exactly where the education sector is at right now – having just tipped over into a critical mass of unhappiness and overwork resulting in the current crisis in recruitment and retention.

As a charity established more than 100 years ago to provide support and practical solutions, we have seen the many steps along the evolutionary ladder towards the status of today’s education sector and have always adapted to make sure we can help those working within it.

In our view, the current crisis requires us to continue a heritage of support, but also to explore and better understand the source of the current challenges facing staff. In essence we need to find the cause for this particular current tipping point so that we can tip things back into a more positive place and return teaching to the fulfilling and enviable profession it should be for all of those within it.

That’s why last week we unveiled the results of our second annual health survey in which we asked more than 2,000 of those working in the education sector about their health and the impact of their work upon it. The results we uncovered were shocking. suggesting that there are signs of an epidemic of mental health issues in the sector.

Eighty-four per cent of those surveyed admitting to suffering from problems such as anxiety, stress and depression in the last two years.

But why is poor mental health so commonplace? The research suggests that workload is to blame in 81 per cent of cases. The rapid pace of change is also blamed as well as unreasonable demands from line managers, both cited in 44 per cent of cases.

Worryingly though, only one quarter of those who have suffered problems have discussed this with their line manager, and a further eight per cent with HR in their schools.

The remainder preferring to discuss problems closer to home, with the majority speaking to their partner (64 per cent), to their friends (51 per cent), or to their family (45 per cent) – most of whom would likely be at a loss to offer any professional guidance or help.

What’s more, despite moves to provide mental health screening for pupils the same courtesy is not currently available to staff in many cases, appropriate wellbeing support for staff being rare. As a result, mental health problems are at risk of becoming a closely guarded secret.

Given this, is it any surprise that more than three quarters of all of those 2,000 we surveyed said they had considered or were already leaving their posts?

The good news is that when a problem was shared the respondents said it helped the situation. Fifty-six per cent who experienced mental health conditions said that speaking to someone had helped them gain perspective, 34 per cent gaining practical advice this way and 21 per cent regaining confidence.

This makes clear the importance of workplace wellbeing and employee assistance programmes as well as counselling services, such as those provided by the Education Support Partnership.

In fact, 15 per cent said there was no wellbeing programme in place in their education setting and 45 per cent didn’t know whether there was a policy in place or not. Of the 40 per cent who said there was a workplace wellbeing policy in place, 71 per cent felt it was either never or not often implemented properly.

Ultimately, responsibility for workplace wellbeing should lie with the employer and policy-maker, not with family, friends, trade unions and charities.

Nearly half of those we surveyed felt their mental health would improve in their workplace if their employer had to meet independently regulated high standards of health and wellbeing provision for staff, so yes – wellbeing programmes are critical, but in many ways they are the medicine to address the symptoms, not the cause.

In our opinion, the cause is quite squarely embedded in Policy (with a capital P) and so we await the forthcoming recommendations of the review groups that resulted from the government’s Workload Challenge, in the hope that these might tip the balance once more, curing workplace strain and improving the sector’s health for good.

How we can help

  • Helping you  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Helping your staff 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.