Teacher sick days skyrocket as poor conditions affect mental health

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Teachers have spent at least 1.5 million days off work due to stress and mental health issues, new figures reveal, amid ongoing concern about the mounting pressures they face in the classroom.

With longstanding concerns about workloads and rising class sizes, new data seen by the Observer suggests that the number of days missed due to mental health problems in some council-controlled schools in England and Wales has increased by 7% from the previous year. It is also up almost a fifth compared to three years ago.

The data emerged in response to freedom of information requests provided by 143 of the 152 local education authorities in England and Wales. In total, more than seven million teaching days have been lost due to stress and mental health problems in the last five years. They showed a steady increase, highlighting the pressures the pandemic has put on teaching staff.

Some areas seemed to be more affected. Kent saw 91,679 lost teaching days in 2021-22, more than anywhere else in the country. Hampshire saw the number of mental health days off increase to 28,945 in 2021-22, a third more than the previous year.

Munira Wilson, a Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman who uncovered the figures, said she feared there was a growing mental health epidemic among teachers.

“Too many teachers face burnout from unsustainable workloads and relentless pressure,” he said. “Parents will be rightly concerned about the horrific knock-on impact this could have on our children’s education and well-being.

“The new secretary of education must establish a clear plan to reverse years of damage to the mental health and well-being of teachers, and to help recruit and retain the staff we need. The Covid investigation must also look at the impact the government’s mishandling of the pandemic had on the mental health of teachers and other frontline workers.”

This comes with teacher leaders warning that job pressures, combined with a below-inflation wage increase offer, will intensify a crisis in teacher retention. Most have been offered a 5% pay raise next year, higher than the original 3% offer but well below the 9.1% inflation rate. Starting salaries will rise 8.9%. The unions have said they will consult their members about possible industrial action in the fall as a result of the offer. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the 5% increase offered to most teachers would be “a total cut in real terms of almost 12% since 2010”. Schools will have to fund the increases from existing budgets.

Julie McCulloch, policy director for the Association of School and College Leaders, said stress and poor mental health had become “a really big problem.” She said: “The biggest problem is workload and this is often cited, along with salary, as one of the main reasons why we have a very high turnover rate in education, at 40%. of teachers leaving within 10 years of qualifying.

“During the pandemic, schools and staff have had to take on a lot of extra work. All of this will have left many staff members feeling burned out and we are also hearing that some have come out of the pandemic with a view to reassessing their work-life balance and leaving teaching. This is a cause for great concern because the teacher shortage situation is already dire enough and it looks likely to get even worse.”

Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The government is failing to address the issues of unacceptable workload, oversized classrooms, punitive accountability measures, stress and salary required to ensure that teaching is an attractive profession for graduates. and that keeps experienced teachers on the job.”

A Whitehall official said the upcoming Covid investigation included a promise to examine the impact on the nation’s mental health. A Department of Education spokesperson said: “We are incredibly grateful for the continued efforts of teachers and school leaders to support pupils, especially during the pandemic. We are taking steps to help teachers stay in the profession and thrive. This includes raising salaries and launching the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, which is committed to reducing unnecessary workload on teachers, promoting flexible working and improving access to wellbeing resources.”

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