Getting real about wellness and workload

Posted on 24th October 2018

Posted by Claire Hughes


The release of the 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index last week brought to the fore what most of us already knew to be true: teachers are overwhelmingly overworked and unhappy. Amid a slew of wellbeing resources released in the fallout was a smaller but vocal concern that the idea of wellbeing aids, in any form, were a band-aid solution that failed to address the causes of teacher dissatisfaction at the roots. Coping mechanisms do not treat a problem, they enable a person to tough it out. And ‘toughing it out’ is precisely the condition under which teachers have been labouring so unhappily. Claire Hughes, an ex-teacher who now works at CENTURY, discusses her experience with workload and wellbeing below:

I became part of the third of teachers who leave teaching after five years or less, because frankly, it isn’t good enough. Like many teachers, I had become disillusioned with the heavy workload but also the sometimes factory-belt like cog of teaching children as a means to survive Ofsted or improve SAT results. 72% of teachers are considering leaving due to workload according to the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index. I truly believed-and still do-that teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world, but fantastic teachers are constantly choosing to quit because of how they are treated.

I realised early on that teachers are bound by a magical moral duty to sacrifice their lives in honour of their careers. Teaching is an odd career that doesn’t just expect you to work longer hours and weekends, but morally judges if you do not. Somehow, by not updating that display, you are failing as a teacher; and thus, you are failing the children. The workload is overwhelming as the work never ends. There are always more books to mark, better resources to laminate and more data to scrutinise.

Don’t take a day off work, or the guilt worsens. A third of senior leaders and teachers feel like taking time off work will negatively impact their relationships with their colleagues. You are just meant to suffer through it. There is a very pointed agenda of ‘I’m sick but I’m in school. If I can do it, you can too.’ Often the thought of missing a day was not worth the resulting extra stress. What if they marked my books incorrectly, or worse?

The knowledge that nearly half of teachers cope with stress by eating gives an ominous underlayer to stale staff meeting biscuits. You see that plain digestive? That is all you’re getting. 74% of staff think they don’t have enough guidance or support around mental health at work, which isn’t surprising, given 64% of educational institutions do not regularly survey their staff to establish levels of employee wellbeing. Over a third of educational professionals say there is no form of mental health support at all at their schools.

67% of educational professionals are stressed. There is a dangerous assumption that teaching and stress are synonymous. The months of teaching when I was unhappy and overworked, I was a bad teacher. The amount of enthusiasm and energy required to engage and inspire 30 children on a daily basis is colossal. For me, it was an impossible task when I was unwell and unsupported. Teachers deserve support; if not just for themselves, then for the children they are teaching.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index recorded that ‘making a difference’ and ‘the children’ were the top two things professionals love about teaching.  The workload of unnecessary paperwork is hated because of the disingenuity of it, but also for how it takes teachers away from what truly matters. Teachers need to be given practical solutions to save time so they can look after themselves. And then focus on the children.

Ofsted now factors wellbeing into school assessments. Some schools decided to handle this by creating compulsory wellbeing programmes for teachers which, unsurprisingly, proved largely unpopular. The issue with wellbeing incentives, whether they be programmes offered by schools on mindfulness or nutrition, or resources generated by well-wishing third parties, is that they are all a means to cope and not means for change.

Schools have a responsibility to account for staff wellbeing through proper support systems and monitoring as Claire keenly points out, but this must be with the aim to create strategies that better empower teachers, not to meet government standards. Wellbeing measures are a fantastic benefit in any workplace, but are only worthwhile if they supplement an infrastructure developed with efficient workflow and employee happiness at its core.