Teachers, looking after yourself is essential not optional

Professor Tamsin Ford of The University of Cambridge, and Research Chair at Place2Be, explains why it is so important that teachers look after both their mental and physical health.

Tamsin Ford

Five times as many teachers report poor mental health now than did so 20 years ago according to research published in late January 2020. Researchers from the Institute of Education at University College London analysed data gathered by the Labour Force Survey, the Health Survey for England and the Annual Population Survey over several decades and reported that 5% of teachers disclosed mental health conditions lasting 12 months or more compared to only 1% in the 1990s.

Their findings may be due to teachers’ increased willingness to admit to struggling, and there is certainly evidence for this trend among parents and young people. Yet teachers working in both primary and secondary schools have higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population and there are increasing concerns about recruitment and worsening retention.

Those leaving the profession remove their knowledge and experience so those remaining face intensified pressure due to the loss of experienced mentors as well as gaps in the workforce. Tish Jennings and Mark Greenberg have eloquently described a burn out cascade. Professional vocation and stigma deter teachers from taking time off or seeking help.

The exhausted and burnt out teacher will be more reactive and irritable with their class, which will become more unsettled and less engaged, increasing the stress on the teacher. Distressed teachers are less effective educators with poorer teacher pupil relationships, which are associated with poorer mental health and disruptive behaviour among their pupils.

These worrying data were collected before the onset of the Pandemic in the UK, which has left many teachers working flat out through their Easter break and half term to continue to support key worker and vulnerable children, and to deliver education remotely to others.

Meanwhile, furloughed staff have had to manage an abrupt change in the rhythm of life and loss of social contact. We await data from studies that robustly measure mental health before and after the Pandemic, but there is additional pressure on teachers given the limited time to prepare for the re-opening schools.

We talk more about protecting our physical health than our mental health health, although the basics of good diet, regular sleep and exercise are vital to both. 

The recommended “five a day” for mental health are to connect with others, keep active, take notice of the world around you, keep learning and give support to others.

Many would endorse a sixth during the current situation; to control the time and attention devoted to news feeds in order to manage the anxiety, sadness or anger that exposure can arouse. Importantly, activity means physical activity rather than the business of the crammed school schedule.

Exercise is a reliable way for many to dissipate stress and improve mood. Whether it is be it running, zumba, walking, yoga or kick-boxing, the main thing is to do something pleasurable. The teaching role itself takes care of number five, but many working in education find it hard to take time out to look after themselves, or even feel guilty about doing so.

Regularly participating in an interest or hobby that absorbs your attention should not be a guilty pleasure; it is an important act of self-care, and essential to protect your health so you can continue to give your best to your pupils. We all need to look after ourselves, as well as each other.

Read further advice on how to manage your mental health at home.

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