Teacher stress and burnout is becoming more prevalent, with 67% of UK teachers describing themselves as stressed (Teacher Wellbeing Index, 2018); 58% of US teachers reporting poor mental health (American Federation of Teachers, 2017) and 57% of international school teachers expressing concerns about their wellbeing (ICS, 2019). Teachers experience higher levels of stress and burnout than most other professions (Stoeber & Rennert, 2008), with teaching being among the top three most stressful occupations in the UK (Cooper, 2015).
The main causes of teacher stress are identified in a comprehensive body of research. I categorise them into three areas
- Classroom Stress– includes heavy workload, large class sizes, managing student behaviour, supporting the profound social and emotional needs of students, integrating students with a host of diverse needs and challenges and pressure to achieve assessment targets.
- System Stress– brought on mostly by rapid and constant educational change with lack of leadership support, inadequate collegial support, poor communication, lack of involvement in decision-making, role ambiguity and lack of status and recognition for teachers.
- Relationship Stress – includes challenging interactions with students, parents, colleagues and leadership.
Studies from across multiple countries and systems report teachers feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed and depressed. Teachers report a number of physical symptoms including headaches, sleep problems, high blood pressure and chest pain. They also share how stress impacts their professional lives leaving them feeling inadequate, disengaged, isolated and resentful. In addition, the lack of personal time available to teachers results in them being forced to choose work over home, which has a range of knock on effects for both teachers and their families.
“Teachers worn down by their work exhibit reduced work goals, lower responsibility for work outcomes, lower idealism, heightened emotional detachment, work alienation, and self-interest. When teachers become burned out, or worn out, their students’ achievement outcomes are likely to suffer because they are more concerned with their personal survival.” (Richardson, Watt, & Devos, 2013, p. 231).
A range of factors may protect teachers against stress or mitigate against the negative impacts of stress. These include an increased sense of self-efficacy (Klassen et al, 2012), connectedness with students and colleagues (Flook et al., 2013) and work recognition (Gardner, 2010). Teachers across all systems respond well to more positive work environments built on bonds of trust and mutual respect, where they feel valued and experience both leadership and collegial support.
In international schools, positive work environments and good relationships take on an even greater importance. Recent ICS research (ICS, 2019) demonstrates the importance of strong, supportive relationships in enabling international school teachers to cope with their stresses. “We felt that, in part, this was because people were often moving away from their families and established relationships, and that transitioning between schools can be traumatic for anyone” (ICS, 2019).
Developing a strategic approach towards positive relationships built around a whole school ethos, that puts relationships first, is key to reducing stress in all school settings and is the single most important step that school leaders can take to reduce the impact of stress on their staff. If we are to prevent the potentially devastating effects of stress on individual teachers and their families, on the teaching profession and on schools, as teachers leave in droves, school leaders need to start acknowledging the underlying causes of teacher stress and focus on developing collaborative and supportive school cultures as a priority.