In this third and final invited blog post about the outcomes from the SOSNZ survey on NZ teachers’ experiences of stress, anxiety and depression, I comment on another of the common themes from the results: bullying.
Teachers spend significant energy on preparing and delivering lessons, managing their classrooms and helping students who, for complex reasons, may have difficulties with learning activities, concentrating or getting along with others. For every teacher, continuous pressure from these situations increases risks of suffering from anxiety, emotional exhaustion, stress and depression. And each teacher and teaching context is different.
But what happens when the main cause of stress and anxiety isn’t within the classroom, but outside it? This may be more difficult to overcome because by definition stressful situations like being the victim of bullying are unpredictable and concealed from others.
Often research and policies surrounding bullying prevention in schools are focused on the students rather than the staff and management. But the culture of bullying in the workplace is known to be a significant problem in New Zealand and this is increasingly evidenced in media and employment law.
Allan Halse, Director of Culturesafe NZ – an organisation set-up to raise awareness of legislation and support victims of bullying – believes
“…this problem will increase until there is more accountability. For instance, there should be consequences for all employers who choose to ignore or maintain the behaviours of workplace bullies.”
A large proportion of CulturesafeNZ’s clients are employees within the education sector.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, 10% of the initial 100 participants from our teacher survey commented that bullying – either from management or parents or both – was a major cause of their stress and anxiety.
In the initial 100 responses, additional anonymous comments highlighted teachers’ experiences of stress as a result of being bullied: “The pressure placed on teachers by management in planning and assessment and time management for teachers” or more specifically “A principal can make or break staff” and similarly: “The pressure from management and their unrealistic expectations of their staff”. I predict that when analysis is complete for all 700+ participants, the extent of the bullying problem in New Zealand schools will become more apparent.
Generally, the prevalence of workplace bullying 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). What is worrying (as highlighted in my previous post) is that teachers in this survey commented how they did not draw upon (or even know about) coping strategies or helpful free resources like the EAP. In view of the gap in academic literature on this subject, it appears the Ministry are sweeping this problem under the carpet. The NZCER run a survey which includes aspects of bullying, but there is a cost of subscribing. This skews the outcomes because understandably only those principals who see a value to publishing their own school’s results are likely to engage with it. Costs of participating in the NZCER survey are based on numbers of students in the school – which is unhelpful because an analysis of workplace culture would not necessarily be connected to its size – for students or staff.
In light of the new Health and Safety Act in New Zealand (which brings NZ more closely in line with other developed countries) some believe workplace bullies will be exposed and subsequently prosecuted. But WorksafeNZ do not (yet) seem to have fully grasped the well-established links between bullying and the emotional harm it causes; concentrating instead to focus their attention on the more obvious bodily harm, caused by physical workplace hazards.
However, teachers need help, support and protection from all sources of stress, anxiety and depression, and this includes bullying and harassment in the workplace. This is important, not only for the well-being of the staff themselves, but also for students because, let’s be clear, students learn best in a safe, caring and professional environment.
~ Dr Ursula Edgington
An angry parent sent me the link to Stuff’s article entitled “Mentally ill teachers investigated by Watchdog“. She was upset at the entire tone of the article and in particular that the ill-informed journalist had declared Aspergers to be a mental illness. It is not.
Then I saw the article shared in a home schooling group as an explanation for why that particular parent chose to home school.
I then heard from a few teachers who have suffered or are suffering with depression, who were very upset that the article implied they might be a danger to children and not able to do their jobs.
This all in the space of half an hour.
So I read the article to see what the fuss was about, and by crikey it was enough to send the best of us into a rant. The journalist makes leaping conclusions that would impress Dick Fosbury himself. He lumps together drug and alcohol addictions, neurological disorders such as Asperger’s, mental illness such as depression and anxiety and more as if they are one and the same. They are not.
At a time when there is such a push to understand mental illness, addiction, and spectrum disorders, Stuff’s article does all a disservice. At best, linking them together as one is inaccurate – at worst it is incredibly damaging.
Stuff faced a barrage of complaints, both on their web page and on social media, and some have sent in formal written complaints. Stuff’s response was to tone down the title of the article so that it read “Nearly 100 mentally-ill teachers investigated by the Education Council in the past six years” Sorry, Stuff, but that token gesture doesn’t cut it.
As Aaryn Niuapu noted in his article, “Using a 0.099% statistic to demonize teachers and mental health is more than irresponsible or lazy, it is unprincipled.”
The one good thing in all of this is the comments section under the Stuff article. (Yes, you read that right!) Most people could see the flaws in the journalist’s article and were understanding of the various issues discussed in the article. A lot of patience and understanding for mental illness is demonstrated, and many make it clear that Asperger’s is not a mental illness.
It’s not often I say this, but thank goodness for the comments section.
Stuff, you need to apologise.
Teachers with mental illness investigated, by Al Ingram
The perils of reporting on mental heath, by Jess McAllen
Under Pressure, by John Palethorpe
Teacher stress, depression and suicide, by Dianne Khan
It concerns me that so many teachers now talk of stress, depression, and the need to get out of the profession for their health. It is not light-hearted when teachers talk of being unhappy then add in “… thank goodness for the kids.” Sometimes the children are all that are keeping a teacher going.
Often the stress is blamed on the constant changes, not because of the changes themselves but because there is little faith the changes are well thought out or improve student achievement and so it feels like a lot of extra work for no good reason, often at the expense of time to do other work that the teacher feels is more valuable.
People will tolerate a lot when they can see value in it – conversely, they are weighed down by what feels valueless.
There is also a feeling that teachers have no say in the direction that education is taking, and little to no control of their own profession. When I asked a group of teachers whether they would send in submissions against the Education Amendment Bill (2), they asked what’s the point, citing that thousands of submissions against charter schools were simply ignored.
Teachers feel helpless – done to rather than part of.
Well that’s just it – I’m not sure that anyone is researching this. If there are any studies under way looking at stress and depression in relation to New Zealand teachers, please do let me know. You might wonder why we need to research the problem? And what we might want to ask?
What I think we need to ask is this:
– are teachers happy in their jobs?
– do teachers feel supported and well looked after?
– are they considering leaving the profession due to stress/ill health?
– has the rate and direction of education reforms in NZ over the past few years had an impact on teacher health?
– Do you feel there is more of a problem now than five or ten years ago?
Something that concerns me very much is that in the UK that teacher suicide rates are now around 40% higher than for ‘all occupations’. Is it the same here in Aotearoa? Despite being a very difficult subject, it is something we have to confront. NZ already has a serious problem with high depression and suicide rates, and no-one wants to see that get worse.
Another thing to be aware of is that there is anecdotal evidence that when a teacher in England is looking for critical illness insurance cover it is only available if mental conditions and stress-related illness are excluded. Do teachers in NZ have similar problems? I know of at least one teacher who is no longer covered for mental health since having time off due to stress – is that widespread?
It really is something we need to keep an eye on. The last thing we need is a depressed profession – just imagine the impact that would have on individual lives and on the quality of education. It would be a lose/lose situation that no-one would want to see happen
[Edit 15/4/16] SOSNZ have set up a small survey regarding NZ teachers’ emotional wellbeing and would welcome your input. The article and survey can be found here.
If you feel stressed, do not leave it until it gets worse. If you are on edge, not sleeping, feeling edgy or tearful, dreading work, and so on, then you owe it to yourself to get support and help immediately. Please do not feel you have to plod on alone – you don’t. Talk to people close to you, if you can, discuss the problems with a supportive manager, speak with your doctor, and make use of support services that are available (below).
If you recognise someone is stressed, please reach out to them and offer support and help. They may just need an ear. You could point them to the help listed below. Either way, they will welcome your kind support and it makes all the difference to know that people understand and care.
Employee Assistance Program (EAP):
Free counselling is available for most NZ teachers. The program gives staff access to three sessions of free confidential counselling and advice each year that is either face-to-face, via telephone, or online chat. EAP registered practitioners can help with relationship breakdowns, alcohol and drug issues, workplace bullying, family issues, depression, financial stress and personal trauma. Check whether your school is subscribed to the EAP as part of their Health and Safety strategy. You can book online.
Below is a list of other New Zealand services that offer support, information and help. All services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week unless otherwise specified.
If you’re outside of New Zealand, you can find help near you through this international list of crisis centres.
Lastly, please look after yourself and others. It’s not the easiest time to be teaching, but you owe it to yourself to stay well.
Easy peasy – just add one magical, wonderful word…