According to figures recently compiled by the Liberal Democrats, 3,750 teachers (one in 83) were on long-term sick leave last year due to pressure of work, anxiety and mental illness. And more than three quarters of teachers are seriously considering leaving their job, according to YouGov research commissioned by the Education Support Partnership in 2017.
One of the key reasons is because their job is causing poor mental and physical health – 75% of teachers experienced physical and mental health issues in the last two years due to their work (Education Support Partnership, Health Survey, 2017). Half of those surveyed had experienced depression, anxiety or panic attacks. Many teachers are feeling overwhelmed and under-valued and as a consequence are suffering from high levels of stress, including ‘toxic stress’ (chronic or frequent unrelieved high stress) which can trigger a range of mental and physical health problems.
Overseeing education bodies and senior leaders need to start treating teacher toxic stress seriously, as an urgent matter of health and safety. Toxic stress needs to transition into tolerable stress and a 10-minute chat and cup of tea in the staffroom is simply not enough for this to happen. Teachers need to be provided with a work environment that is conducive to calming their minds, brains and bodies.
For example, making provision in schools for a special sensory space for teachers such as a ‘nurture room’ (a student-free, work-free room) where staff can unwind would be conducive to bringing down toxic stress levels and improving teacher wellbeing.
There is a wealth of research discussing the benefits of ‘enriched environments’ (EEs) – rich sensory environments – on the mind, brain and body. EEs are environments, which are of full of sensory stimuli which engage people physically, cognitively, socially and sensorially. In schools, such an environment would provide teachers with an anti-stress chemical (Oxytocin)-releasing space which, importantly, they could access on a daily basis. The nurture/EE staff-only space could include some of the following sensory elements which trigger these anti-stress chemicals: warm lights (uplighters), warm colours, music, nice smells, comforting fabric and textures and external warmth (eg, electric blankets) Furthermore, providing teaching staff with the opportunity to participate in physically calming activities, such as mindfulness, Tai Chi and Yoga would also increase the value of the nurture room in bringing down teachers’ stress levels.
In conclusion, teachers need to feel valued and nurtured in their work environments so that they can, in turn, nurture the children in their care. There should be a major focus on the provision of supportive physical environments which bring down toxic stress for teaching staff.
For more information on stress, child mental health and training, call 020 7354 2913 or visit: www.childmentalhealthcentre.org.
Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health London, is a child psychologist, psychotherapist, neuroscience expert and the highly acclaimed author of more than 20 books in the field of child mental health.