Why teacher wellbeing must be central in recovery planning

Dr Lisa-Maria Müller – Education Research Manager

Since the start of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, teachers have worked tirelessly to help students access online learning, organised food parcels for their students, dealt with escalating safeguarding issues because of lockdown, assured keyworker provision, all whilst taking care of their own families. And they have been paying the price for their unwavering commitment in the shape of a mental health and wellbeing crisis that demands our urgent attention.

The Chartered College of Teaching first highlighted the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on teacher and student wellbeing in May 2020. In the first report of our ‘Education in Times of Crisis’ series, we summarised research evidence from past health crises and natural disasters and hypothesised that teachers are subject to additional pressures because of their professional role in supporting children. They are often the first to respond to students’ socio-emotional needs in such situations and are regularly involved in delivering interventions in these contexts, often without adequate support or training (Child Bereavement UK, 2018; Pfefferbaum et al., 2004; Wolmer et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2016).

The emotional toll of caring for others

There is general recognition that working with individuals who are themselves experiencing stress, trauma or grief can have a negative impact on the mental health of professionals (Bride, 2004), sometimes even leading to the development of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) (Figley, 1995) – findings we highlighted back in May 2020 to draw attention to the particular impact this crisis may be having on teachers who became first responders to children’s increased stress, anxieties and traumatic experiences. Evidence from past crises, although limited and of mixed quality, appears to confirm the negative impact such situations can have on teachers’ mental health and wellbeing (Pfefferbaum et al., 2004; Zhang et al., 2016; Borntrager et al., 2012). Our research with nearly 1,800 teachers and school leaders confirmed the hypothesis outlined in the first report in that teachers were indeed describing how they had become the first point of call for distressed families and children. Yet unlike other professions such as psychologists or social workers, teachers typically are not trained in the important coping mechanisms that would allow them to distance themselves from the stress and trauma their students are experiencing. This lack of coping mechanisms likely further impacts teachers’ mental health and wellbeing.

The impact of workload

A major risk factor in the development of STS and other mental health issues is workload (Hensel et al., 2015). Multiple reports have highlighted how teachers’ and school leaders’ workload has increased drastically as a result of school closures and the COVID19 outbreak. In our second report, over 60 per cent of respondents said that their work-life balance and wellbeing had been negatively affected by the crisis although 25 per cent also noted an improvement in their work-life balance. This feeling is illustrated in a quote from a participant at the time:

‘…Teaching workload has increased. Colleagues are setting work online, teaching live lessons via Teams and also in school all at the same time. Workload has increased hugely. Learners and staff are largely left to develop their own
strategies for dealing with what is essentially an ongoing trauma situation and this is enormously worrying.’

Our most recent report, which was published in November 2021, highlights that workload and wellbeing challenges persist. Over half of respondents to our survey indicated that their workload had increased as a result of distance learning – an increase that according to 67 per cent of respondents in a recent TES report has become unmanageable.

Research on school leaders’ experiences of lockdown paints a similarly concerning picture (Greany et al., 2021). The vast majority of respondents reported that the crisis has had a negative impact on their workload and well over half reported a negative impact on their wellbeing. The stress of the pandemic reportedly also negatively impacted school leaders’ physical health with just over half reporting to be in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ physical health during the pandemic, compared to 88 per cent during ‘normal’, i.e. non-pandemic, times. The crisis is thus clearly taking a toll on the mental and physical health of teachers and school leaders.

Factors leading to an increase in stress and workload and what we can do about them

Government guidance

Nine in 10 school leaders (93%) disagreed that government guidance was timely and straightforward and two thirds (65%) did not find the guidance trustworthy (Greany et al. 2021). In our own report, one-quarter of respondents said that they did not feel sufficiently supported by the education system, including the government. DfE do seem
to have taken criticism from the sector on board and have generally ceased publishing guidance late in the workday and week and have made it easier to see changes to documents, but changing goalposts and unclear communication continue to be an issue. One participant described the issue thus:

‘I need there to never again be an announcement about what I will have to do in my setting without the relevant guidance also being published, ideally beforehand. Late evening guidance published days after a headline statement has ruined my ability to plan, to present a safe, knowledgeable face to parents and to sleep.’

The government should continue to improve their communication with school leaders and the sector more widely, ensuring that they are the first to hear about any changes rather than the press to avoid adding additional stress to what is already a challenging situation. Recommendations should also be evidence-based and assessed in light of the additional workload their implementation will likely cause.

Live teaching only

As an increasing number of students continue to self-isolate, distance learning provision remains an issue. In our two most recent reports, we reviewed the evidence on effective approaches to distance learning and surveyed teachers about their experiences with distance learning provision. Together, results from the two reports show that live teaching is not necessarily the most effective approach but can add significantly to teacher workload and can be challenging for students who live in households where a single device is shared by multiple family members. On the other hand, recorded content does not only potentially decrease teacher workload as resources can be shared and re-used, but also allows students to access resources more flexibly. Furthermore, our reports highlight a blended/hybrid approach where students at home follow the same lesson as their classmates in school is not particularly effective unless the right technology, e.g. tracking cameras and lapel microphones, is in place. Given that only a minority of schools has access to such technology, blended/hybrid learning is likely of limited effectiveness.

Despite the strong evidence that live teaching and blended/hybrid is not necessarily the most effective approach, the government continues to recommend that live teaching should be the preferred option for self-isolating students. In our view, such recommendations add unnecessarily to teacher workload with limited evidence for its positive impact on student learning and should thus be revisited.

Focusing too much on ‘catch-up’ instead of recovery

‘[…] we need a general understanding that this group of pupils, from [ages] 2.5-19, will be different from others; not worse, not better, just different. We also need a new narrative that academic success is not synonymous with life success. These pupils cannot be judged as individuals based on their academic results alone.’

When we surveyed teachers about school reopening plans back in summer 2020, the need for time and money to focus on students’ socio-emotional recovery and development was emphasised by participants. So was the need for additional training to support grieving and traumatised students. Initiatives such as the £8 million wellbeing programme are hence welcome but it needs to be recognised that such initiatives are only the start of the long road to recovery and teachers, students and their communities will mostly need time, patience and understanding that schools are far from being ‘back to normal’, so they can slowly start to recover from what is currently still an ongoing pandemic. So, instead of asking ‘what else’ we could be doing to support teacher wellbeing, we should be asking ‘what could we be doing less of’ to lower teacher workload and improve wellbeing.

Recommendations for government to improve teacher wellbeing

Think ‘workload’ when issuing new guidance. How will changes impact the workload of already overworked school leaders and teachers? Is the change necessary? What can DfE do to help implement the changes?

Stop promoting live teaching as the preferred approach for self-isolating students and encourage the use of high-quality, pre-made resources instead.

Consider what schools, leaders and teachers could be doing ‘less of’ to free up space for socio-emotional recovery of staff and students.


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