Last reviewed 23 October 2019

Teaching staff report the highest rates of work-related stress according to the Health and Safety Executive. Michael Evans explores the causes and consequences.

Teaching: a love-hate relationship

A recent report by Ofsted indicated that teachers love their profession, overwhelmingly enjoy teaching, are generally very positive about their workplace and colleagues, and enjoy building relationships with their pupils and watching them flourish.

However, these positive elements are countered by high workloads, a lack of work-life balance, reduced resources and, in some cases, a perceived lack of support from senior managers, especially when managing pupils’ behaviour. This leads to a general feeling that the profession does not receive the respect that it deserves. Many teachers feel that they are part of an undervalued society.

Causes of work-related stress in teaching

Without doubt, teaching can be stressful. Research has shown that the main causes of work-related stress in teaching are:

  • excessive workload and long hours – not helped by a surfeit of government “initiatives” and frequent changes in policies

  • poor pupil behaviour, such as low-level disruption, intimidation and verbal abuse, often compounded by large class size

  • unrealistic parental expectations for their child, frequency of emails from parents with an expectation of an instant response, parents raising concerns or complaints inappropriately

  • pressures associated with assessment targets and inspections

  • bullying by management

  • stress of appraisal and performance-related pay

  • threat of instigation of capability proceedings

  • lack of professional opportunities.

The consequences of stress

The consequences of excessive stress on teachers are serious and can be wide ranging. They can include:

  • physical symptoms such as headaches, raised blood pressure, infections, digestive disorders, heart disease or cancer

  • mental health symptoms such as withdrawal, poor concentration, anxiety, depression, insomnia, “burn out” and an increased risk of suicide

  • behavioural consequences such as low self-esteem, increased drug or alcohol intake, deteriorating personal relationships, leading to family, relationship or career problems.

A high workload

Ofsted commented on high workload, which contributes to work-related stress in teaching. 51 hours a week was the average that full-time teachers reported working, while for senior leaders this figure was 57 hours. Less than half of this time was spent on actual teaching, with the rest spent on lesson planning, marking and administrative tasks.

The main causes of the heavy workload were identified as:

  • the volume of administrative tasks

  • the volume of marking

  • staff shortages

  • lack of support from external specialist agencies for areas such as SEND or behaviour

  • challenging behaviour of pupils

  • changes to external examinations

  • frequent changes of government policies and regulations

  • lack of skills or training (in some cases).

Enough is enough

When all these factors are considered, it is understandable that many decide that enough is enough and choose to leave the teaching profession, in part, due to work-related stress. The latest statistics are for 2018 and figures for those who qualified in 2017, indicate that 15.3% had left the teaching profession. For those entering the profession in 2013, 33% had left and for those entering in 2008 the wastage rate was 40%.

In the 12 months to November 2017, 42,830 FTE qualified teachers left the state-funded sector. This was a wastage rate of 9.9%, with 400 more leaving the profession than joining it. Of those leaving, 35,800 left for reasons other than retirement.

Bearing in mind that it costs an average of £23,000 to train a teacher, this is a significant wastage.

Naturally a number will have left the teaching profession because of a change in family circumstances and it is expected that many of those will return at some future date, but there will still be a large number who have decided that work-related stress and the pressures of the job are simply too much to bear.

It is tragic when young teachers leave the profession. They all will have made a conscious choice to become teachers in the first place and will have worked hard to meet the academic requirements to begin their teacher training. This will be followed by years of study before qualification. For many, their dreams will have been shattered, and they will still need to pay off their student loan.

Teacher retention

Naturally, the major concerns of the DfE are to drive recruitment into teaching and boost retention. Several factors have been identified with respect to retention:

  • teachers with permanent contracts have a higher retention rate

  • retention rates increase with age and experience and are higher in schools rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted

  • full-time teachers are less likely to leave the system than part-time teachers

  • holding a more senior post in a school is associated with higher retention.

How it used to be

Teachers still complain about excessive workload and clearly this is an issue that is in urgent need of addressing. Some older members of the profession will remember the time when a teacher’s prime role was to teach. Obviously, time needed to be spent on lesson preparation and marking and making a classroom look attractive, but this never seemed to be too much of a problem. Life was much more relaxed in those days.

The pressure rises

This relaxed life came to an end in 1988 with the Education Reform Act. Standards were perceived to be slipping and a National Curriculum was introduced. Initially, this was presented to schools in a series of thick ring binders, one for each of the subjects that were to be taught. Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever had time to read these so over time this has obviously needed to be slimmed down.

The Education Reform Act also brought Ofsted, which came four years later.

Many feel that Ofsted was really a missed opportunity. Rather than giving support to schools to help them improve, it was felt that the inspections were punitive and created an atmosphere of fear and depression. There was much resentment among teachers that they were having to spend time filling in forms and tick lists when the time would have been better spent teaching a class.

Over the years there have been a raft of government directives. Being Secretary of State for Education is felt to be a good step up the ladder of promotion. There have been a number in recent years, but none seems to have lasted for very long. Each one, anxious to make an impression, seems to have introduced a sparkling new initiative. Already stressed teachers then need to get to grips with it.

What now?

Possible ways of reducing workload in teaching and subsequent stress levels:

  • return to former system of days gone by when teachers did hardly any administration and devoted the bulk of their time to teaching

  • limit government interference and leave teaching to the professionals

  • drastically reduce the amount of record keeping that is currently required

  • reform the inspection system to make it more supportive rather than punitive

  • greatly improve systems of support for teachers in all areas.

See the Managing Stress at Work in Education and Early Years topic for in-depth guidance including two model policies on stress in work at school and work/life balance policy.