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TUC 2018 Pupil poverty and increased workloads have led to a mental health crisis for teachers

The government must recognise the impacts of its policies on school students and staff, says CHRIS KEATES

TEACHING has always been an intensely demanding job, but evidence collected annually by the NASUWT over the last seven years demonstrates that teachers’ physical and mental health and wellbeing have deteriorated dramatically as a result of their working environment becoming increasingly toxic.

The combination of ever-increasing workload demands, deteriorating pay and working conditions, excessive freedoms and flexibilities given to employers and the impact of the government’s austerity measures in reducing specialist support for schools are key contributory factors to the crisis in teacher supply. 

Three out of 10 teachers say they have turned to medication in the last 12 months to deal with the physical and mental toll their job is taking on them.

More than four in 10 have seen a doctor or medical professional, while 15 per cent say they have undergone counselling. 

More than three-quarters of teachers reported to us they have experienced an increase in workplace stress over the past 12 months, with more than four out of five saying their job has had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing over the last year. 

Nearly two-thirds of teachers say their job has adversely affected their mental health and over half feel it has affected their physical health in the last 12 months. 

Teachers are finding it impossible to escape the stress they are under. The stark and appalling reality is encapsulated by the teacher who said: “I find myself physically shaking, feeling sick and sometimes being physically sick whilst getting ready to go to work.”

Another related the devastating impact work-related stress has had on her health, saying: “I have considered taking my own life because the stress has got that much that I could not cope with everything.” 

Year on year this evidence has been presented to government. It is scandalous that ministers, aided and abetted by too many employers, continue to fail to take responsibility for the dire working conditions their policies, including deregulation, have enabled to flourish. 

The treatment of teachers is symptomatic of a government which fails to value working people generally and presides over an “anything goes” culture where the impact on workers is regarded as collateral damage. 

The consequence of the failure to address the plight of teachers is that they are being driven out of the profession and would-be teachers are being deterred from entering.  

Our children and young people are therefore being denied their entitlement to be taught by qualified teachers and being denied access to the highest quality education provision. 

The education team around the child is disintegrating with the shortage of teachers and with support staff increasingly exploited to fill the recruitment gaps while themselves suffering deteriorating working conditions. 

In far too many cases the response of employers to deteriorating physical and mental health of teachers is the introduction of punitive and callous sickness absence policies which exacerbate stress and anxiety and generate a culture of silence and shame around raising issues of health, particularly mental health in the workplace.

Stressed, anxious and demoralised workers cannot deliver a high-quality service. The government and employers cannot claim to be committed to raising standards of education if the physical and mental wellbeing of the workforce remains such a low priority.

The mental health issues affecting teachers are all too common in other workplaces across the country and the NASUWT motion to congress on mental health will provide a platform for all unions whose members are affected to share their concerns and experiences.

The NASUWT will continue to press government and employers to change their attitudes and approach, continuing our work with Unison, GMB and Unite on promoting the Valued Workers Scheme. 

However, we will not hesitate to continue to empower our members to stand up for their right to be treated with dignity at work, as we have already done in many cases, by balloting for industrial action where we find adverse management practices blighting the mental and physical health, wellbeing and working lives of teachers.

Chris Keates is general secretary of NASUWT.

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