In this invited Blog post – one of a series of three – I explore some of the global issues related to teachers’ well-being and present an analysis of the preliminary findings from a short, informal exploratory questionnaire from Save our Schools NZ about levels of stress, anxiety and depression reported by New Zealand teachers.
A recent report from a major UK teachers’ Union (NASUWT) illustrated the high levels of stress, anxiety and depression among the teaching profession.
- 22% of respondents to that UK survey reported increased use of alcohol
- 21% increased use of caffeine and 5% increased use of tobacco to help them manage work-related stress
- 7% of the teachers reported how their use or reliance upon prescription drugs has increased to help them cope
- Almost half (47%) of these teachers had seen a doctor in the last 12 months as a result of work-related physical or mental health problems.
Perhaps understandably, staff turnover is high, with many UK teachers leaving after the first year.
But what of the New Zealand context?
History shows the inevitability of audit cultures so prevalent in the UK and US influencing policy and practice in New Zealand, as indeed some already have in the form of National Standards and other initiatives . It’s the introduction of previously alien business models, including Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) within state provision services that creates challenges. So, do New Zealand teachers also suffer high levels of stress, anxiety and depression? And if their emotional health is being negatively impacted by their work, are the causes similar to those highlighted in the UK and elsewhere? To what extent does stress impact upon the individuals and the institution concerned and what could be learnt from the international research in this area?
How often are teachers feeling stressed or anxious?
In a very short survey, Save Our Schools NZ asked teachers: ‘In a typical week, how often do you feel stressed or anxious at work?’
- 72% responded either that ‘most of the time’ or ‘about half the time’ they felt stressed or anxious (about 35% for each category).
- 20% commented that ‘once in a while’ they felt these symptoms.
- Perhaps most worryingly, 7% commented that they ‘always’ felt stressed and anxious at work.
Another question focused on some of the possible causes of this stress and anxiety. It presented a number of options based on the outcomes from other research data in this area and asked which of the terms best defined the main causes of the stress, anxiety and depression.
- The most prevalent choice of the participants was ‘own workload’ with a result of 73%.
- The next closest answers were three equally-ranked responses with approximately 50% of participants choosing these:
- ‘Pressures from management’
- ‘Students’ needs’ and
- ‘Students’ behaviour’
(The latter two causes were highlighted in the comments section as being as a result of teachers not feeling they had adequate support from their school for students with complex needs.)
- The next two closely-ranked (and interconnected) answers were ‘Changes in educational policy’ and ‘Lack of support in school’, which each scored approximately 30%.
Interestingly for me personally – because of my research interests – the lowest-ranking answer of all the choices provided was ‘Audit and inspection’ which often ranks very highly for teachers in the UK under pressure from accountability measures. In line with research by Prof Martin Thrupp, this potentially indicates a stark contrast between the negative impact of Ofsted on UK teachers’ lives and the more sensitive (if somewhat ambiguous) approach from New Zealand’s Education Review Office (ERO).
This question also had an ‘other’ comments box which revealed a series of other relevant issues: 10% commented that bullying – either from management or parents or both – was a major cause of their stress and anxiety. This links to commonly debated cultural issues of the New Zealand workplace, for instance the phenomenon of Tall Poppy Syndrome (something I’ve written briefly about elsewhere and will return to later.)
In conclusion, the outcomes from this initial survey indicates that stress is clearly having a significant, negative impact on New Zealand teachers, and perhaps warrants a closer and more in-depth investigation. For instance, how widespread is this problem and what are the lived experiences of New Zealand teachers?
– Dr Ursula Edgington