Mental health: The oxygen mask approach

The Prime Minister’s public recognition and commitment earlier this month to deliver better mental health services is welcome, if long overdue. But aside from the fact that schools alone cannot solve this enormous issue, how can teachers be expected to adequately support children’s mental wellbeing when their own is under such pressure? If secondary school staff are to successfully ‘lead by example,’ an ‘oxygen mask’ approach is surely what is needed to help stem this crisis.  

As the leading charity supporting all who are working in the sector, Education Support Partnership is too aware of the growing stresses and strains on the mental health and wellbeing of struggling secondary school teachers and school leaders. Indeed, last year we helped more than 7,500 education professionals who called our confidential helpline in a state of crisis, panic and high distress. As one secondary school teacher told us:

“I rang in complete despair. Got some excellent advice and was good to talk to someone without fear of judgement. Still struggling with depression but feel supported in the knowledge that I can call any time for a chat.”

Such damage to wellbeing continues to lead to high rates of sickness absence and staff choosing to leave the profession. As illustrated by our last annual health survey of more than 2000 education professionals, 84 % told us they had suffered from some form of mental health problem in the last two years and over half (53%) felt that their ill health had impacted on pupil’s studies.

The demands of ever-greater accountability, the growing testing culture and monitoring – and spiralling workload in secondary schools, is clearly having an increasingly negative effect on students and staff alike.

An LSE study published last Spring found that what made a good teacher is not just experience; their job satisfaction as well as teaching matter more. Analysing ALSPAC* data, Dr Sarah Fleche unsurprisingly found a direct correlation between these factors in teachers and successful students.

Enabling what is increasingly referred to as ‘self-care’ to help teachers build resilience and  tackle crippling workloads won’t solve long-term issues but is one way you and your school can make a great difference to your and your teams’ wellbeing in and out of work. 

Now that mental health and wellbeing are firmly high up the agenda, let’s work together to look at how we can practically make a real difference to that of teachers and their students.  

Here are our three top tips:

Separating home and work    
Time away from the stresses of work are essential. The break will clear your head, give you perspective and help to make you more productive during the working day. If you must take marking and other work home, define how long you will spend on it, when you will stop and stick to these limits.

Balancing home and work will always prove challenging and is easier said than done but their separation is critical for personal wellbeing and particularly for those who have young families or other caring responsibilities. Finding effective solutions will ensure you stay well and teach well as the LSE study demonstrated. It is in your school’s interest to help you find ways to manage your workload rather than it get out of control and negatively impact on your life. Honesty is the best policy.

Getting enough rest
Everybody copes better with stress if they’ve had enough sleep. Wind down an hour or two before bed and ban paperwork or digital devices from your bedroom. If you’re struggling to clear your mind, try planning every day in advance with a list you can tick off the next day.

Organising your paperwork
Many teachers recommend colour-coding storage in the classroom by theme, year group and level so you can find things more quickly.

Set aside time every day (or if not feasible, each week) to move paperwork from ‘to file’ to the relevant place in your filing system.

*Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children

How we can help

  • Help for 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.
  • Help for 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.