Can we afford to lose another 50,000 days to stress?

13 Mar

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.” Richard Carlson


I have previously blogged on the worrying impacts of stress related illnesses associated with teaching as a profession. That is an issue that I am returning to in light of figures that I have uncovered through freedom of information requests to local authorities in Wales.

Of the 22 local authorities in Wales over half (12) have seen an increase in the number of days lost due to teachers being forced into taking stress related sick leave. The blunt statistic means that if you are a teacher working in Blaenau Gwent; Caerphilly; Cardiff; Carmarthenshire; Ceredigion; Conwy; Flintshire; Gwynedd; Neath Port Talbot; Powys; the Vale of Glamorgan or Ynys Mon you are more likely to be affected by stress related illnesses in the period between January 1st 2013 and December 31st 2013 than you would have been for the corresponding period in 2012.

In total 50,227.22 teaching days were lost last year due to workload pressures impacting on the health of teachers in Wales in 2013. Overall this was actually a reduction of around 700 on 2012 but in the grand scheme of things it remains stubbornly high above the 50,000 mark. It is little wonder really when workload surveys indicate that the average teacher’s working week is nearly 60 hours at primary level and nearly 56 hours at secondary*. Worryingly this is an increase in working commitments which will no doubt result in an increase in individuals who are mentally and physically driven to illness.

A NUT/YouGov survey of the teaching profession, published in January 2014, showed that two-thirds of teachers (63%) said that more than a fifth of their workload does not directly benefit children’s learning. There is clearly scope to reduce the workload of teachers. This is not even to consider other avenues such as reducing class sizes; taking out arbitrary and ever changing performance indicators from the sector and re-examining the impact on teachers wellbeing of fundamentally flawed polices such as school banding. The delivery of many other policies can also be called into question.

No teacher wants to find themselves placed on sick leave due to stress related illnesses. They are physically, emotionally and mentally demoralising and very often the reality is that those individuals find it incredibly hard to return to work.

We should not hide from the huge benefits of tackling the causes of this problem. Not only can those teachers who suffer from ill-health be supported in the classroom and this problem be reduced it will have knock on benefits to the school, pupils and education finances. Millions of public funding is spent annually on supply cover. Often that is a legitimate requirement to cover training for teachers, meetings or planned leave such as maternity cover. Teachers, like any other profession, are also naturally susceptible to getting ill. However, tackling leave taken through stress related illness can of course be one area that this figure can be reduced with the right changes in policy. If you take a rough figure of the cost of an average supply teacher to a school being around £170 that is close to an £8.5m spend in Wales on stress related illness cover per year. Addressing this issue will also improve school standards by ensuring a greater consistency in staffing arrangements as well as, no doubt, a happier and more motivated workforce.

Unfortunately, this remains an issue that is not only failing to be addressed but one that is increasingly being pushed to breaking point. Instead of reducing the workloads of teachers and investing in support we are seeing ever-increasing pressures on teachers and little backing given to those that suffer as a result. Instead of an understanding of why a teacher suffers due to these over burdened workloads they are criticised, attacked and placed on capability procedures with their livelihoods put at risk. The inevitable and saddening consequence is that the matter is made worse. Quite simply, that cannot continue without pushing the whole system to breaking point. The question we have to ask ourselves is can we really afford to lose another 50,000 teaching days by not doing something about the causes of stress-related illness in school?

*The workload survey is not a Welsh specific indicator. However the per pupil funding gap and increasing class sizes in Wales would suggest at the very least similar working patterns if not higher. In relation to stress induced concerns a TES Survey noted worryingly low levels of morale amongst the profession in Wales.


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