Stressed staff, stressed students?

Gill Coult, an education consultant, has worked for over 27 years within Further Education (FE) and has witnessed the difficulties in recruiting appropriate staff for teaching posts in FE. She has also supported staff who have felt overwhelmed by the teaching workload and has worked on strategies to help keep them in the teaching profession. In this feature article she looks at how stressed staff have an impact on students.


The education sector is currently experiencing shortfalls in the recruitment of teaching staff and concerns over the retention of experienced teachers. Excessive workload and unrealistic goals and targets have contributed to the worrying state within the teaching fraternity but underlying all of this is an acknowledged increase in stress among academic staff, which in turn is having a detrimental effect on our young people.

Recent report findings

There has often been a feeling that uptight staff engender uptight students. A recent study concerning primary school children in British Columbia, Canada found that teachers who were “close to burnout” displayed high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. However when academics from the University of British Columbia examined the levels of cortisol in pupils, they found that the children being taught by these staff had much higher levels of cortisol than those who were taught by teachers who were not stressed.

The academics revealed that “this is the first study to show that teachers’ occupational stress is linked to students’ physiological stress regulation.”

Closer to home, Leeds Beckett University found that “excessive workload and constant scrutiny are among the causes of mental ill health among teachers. The study concerning 775 teachers revealed that 54% had experienced poor mental health at some time. The report revealed that 77% said that the poor mental health of teachers was having a detrimental effect on pupils’ progress.

Ninety-four per cent of those taking part in the survey said that they felt their classroom energy levels drop when suffering from poor mental health. Eighty-nine per cent felt less creative in the classroom during these periods and 85% felt that poor mental health could adversely affect the quality of lesson planning.

Such statistics, albeit from a relatively small sample group, do show the impact of the demands of teaching today and cannot be ignored. One of the main drivers for many teachers entering the profession is to make a difference to the lives of the students of all ages. However, with increased workload and a substantial rise in paperwork some teachers are feeling removed from their initial commitment to teaching and are now surviving each day rather than enjoying the profession and delivery of the curriculum.

Although target setting, tracking, assessment, to name but a few of the requirements, are essential elements of a teacher’s role, this is sometimes at the expense of the truly inspirational, enthusiastic delivery that used to take place when time was not dominated by excessive paperwork.

Impact on staff

Past research as outlined in Looking After Teacher Wellbeing (Education Support Partnership) has shown that there are six aspects of work that could create a stressful environment if not appropriately managed.

The six aspects are the following.

  1. Demands — workload and work environment.

  2. Control — personal influence over how their job is undertaken.

  3. Support — from colleagues, line manager and institution.

  4. Relationships — reducing conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

  5. Role — understanding job role and expectations.

  6. Change — how change is managed in the institution.

Feeling under scrutiny and proving oneself, in addition to the onerous paperwork trail with which we all have to comply, can lead to staff illness and time off work with substantial repercussions for their colleagues, the pupils and the school or college. It’s a costly business getting cover by using staff or agencies in addition to the disruption to learning. To support staff when they are feeling unwell or fatigued as a result of work would be much more cost effective than for them to be absent for any length of time.

Staff in the surveys indicated that while working under pressure they did not work to the best of their ability; they lacked inspiration and were teaching to targets and exam requirements. Delivery of lessons lacking in enthusiasm and creativity often affects the level of pupil/student interaction, which leads to less absorption of the lesson content and ultimately diminishes the relationship with the member of staff. Seventy-three per cent of staff suffering from poor mental health reported that it did affect how well they explained things during lessons and 72% thought that their questioning skills suffered.

Demotivated staff can also become disengaged and their productivity levels diminish. Unfortunately, if there is no intervention by mentors, leaders or senior staff, this can often lead to staff leaving the teaching profession.

Impact on students

Often, pupils and especially students in college can identify a member of staff who is struggling and can exploit the situation. This can take the form of low-level poor behaviour, challenging behaviour, disrespecting the teacher, which in turn leads to general disruptive behaviour, which when not challenged can affect the whole class. Unfortunately this only leads into the self-fulfilling prophecy for the teacher who doesn’t feel they can cope and therefore doesn’t, leading to more feelings of being undervalued and stressed.

As a consequence, the students often lose interest in the lesson, don’t achieve as well as they should and, in the worst cases, become disengaged.

Steps forward

These recent surveys and reports only confirm a situation that many in the teaching profession already knew existed. Hopefully now that there is actual evidence that shows the link between teachers’ occupational stress and students’ physiological stress regulation, it will be a time to take stock and try to rekindle the enthusiastic environment that was commonplace in so many schools.

Management and the wellbeing of staff varies hugely from one institution to another but it is now clear that if we are to engender successful students who attain to the best of their abilities, we collectively need to support our teachers and reduce the level of stress in the workplace to improve retention within the profession.

At a local level, head teachers and senior managers in colleges have the scope to improve conditions while still meeting the demands of the ever-changing curriculum, reduced funding and a requirement to improve attainment.

Creating an open, transparent, supportive culture led by motivational leaders can engender a safe and happy environment. Staff are more content when they understand their role and expectations and how they fit into the overall organisation. If staff feel that they are supported and understood by their line managers, often small problems can be minimised rather than escalate into insurmountable issues. Teaching staff should be involved in decision-making so that there is a level of ownership rather than a feeling that they are being told to do something that they may not understand. Trust across the institution goes a long way to nurturing a feeling of wellbeing and openness.

There are many ways for the teaching staff to have a voice. In larger institutions, surveys or questionnaires can be undertaken to detect underlying problems that are often not expressed. Whatever the size of the institution, it is important that senior staff are aware of emerging issues and respond before they escalate.

If staff do choose to leave the profession, robust, empathetic exit interviews indicating the reasons for their choice can inform managers of any persistent problems that they can address in future conduct.

Teaching is a great profession and can truly change the lives of young people of all ages but we do need to look after our staff and enable them to educate our young people to the highest standards.