5 Signs Of Teacher Stress And What To Do About It
Updated: Mar 7
The weather outside is grey and blustery and teachers’ energy levels are now at their lowest; yet the list of jobs that are expected from an already overwhelmed workforce appears to be increasing. The Guardian newspaper reported recently that teacher stress was pushing teachers to breaking point and Education Support, a charity set up to help and support teachers, has reported that teacher mental health is suffering and work-related stress had increased for the third consecutive year with 78% of teachers experiencing symptoms.
But how do you know if the stress levels in your job are putting your mental health in danger? Here we look at the 5 signs to look out for that show if you are suffering from teacher stress and what you can do about it.
The Causes Of Teacher Stress
When coming home from school how many of us are looking forward to time with our feet up, watching TV or some other pastime and forgetting about work? Or is it more likely we look at the bag of marking, paperwork and reports that need to be written and shudder in the knowledge that our time is going to be spent on schoolwork? Are your weekends an opportunity for a long lie-in, a chance to catch up with friends, go out and visit somewhere exciting or even have a leisurely lazy day with no responsibilities? Or do you see them as a time to get on with the work that you don’t have time to do in the week, planning a scheme of work for next term, updating your departmental handbook for the upcoming Ofsted deep dive you may or may not have sprung on you and creating a ‘fun’ lesson for a group of year 8’s who will hate it anyway?
As educational professionals it has become normalised for us to work much longer than a standard 40 hour week many other professions would consider full-time and on average a teacher works 55-60 hours per week, according to the DfE’s own research. We are constantly under scrutiny from SLT and Ofsted, where we need to continuously justify our teaching methods and results. And this doesn’t even account for disruptive students who want you to entertain them, the high-achieving pupils who need you to stretch them and unhelpful parents who think that because they went to school in the 1980’s they are experts on what goes on in a school these days. To top it all you still need to deal with an irate email from a parent about how their precious darling is being picked on by you unfairly just because their child doesn’t like your subject, a child who prefers to ‘entertain the class’ whilst you are trying to teach them about the purpose of the CPU and you have a parents’ evening eating into your already busy evening schedule.
We have an incredibly hard accountability system where we are made to feel like nothing we do is good enough, combined with an ever-expanding workload that means many teachers feel like their professional life is out of control. With such a toxic working environment and ridiculously high expectations, is it any wonder that teacher mental health is suffering?
But, all teachers are working under the same conditions, all teachers are inspected regularly and have disruptive students to deal with and all teachers need to plan and prepare outside of the usual teaching hours. It can be difficult to find a sympathetic ear when you are surrounded by people in the same boat who all seem to be coping with it. We all know the teacher who bounds into the staff meeting on a Monday morning full of energy, with arms full of props and a triumphant beam about how they can’t wait to teach coastal erosion to the same class you dread standing in front of, because they always “behave for her”. We know the teachers who can walk out of the door at 4 o’clock without a care in the world, with no marking and looking relaxed and fulfilled as you pass them in the corridor and they give you a cheery “see you tomorrow” as you grind your teeth silently before dropping your carefully collated handouts all over the floor. We all know the teacher who just has “one more question” during the lunchtime meeting when you are desperate to grab a sandwich and go to the loo before your year 10 class tear apart your classroom if they are kept waiting.
How can they cope when you find the whole thing so utterly overwhelming? Why do some people not feel the stress of teaching? What are they doing that you are not doing?
You are not alone. In 2018 the NEU workload survey found that 81% of teachers had considered leaving teaching in the last year because of workload.
When questioned 78% of secondary school teachers and 69% of primary school teachers believe that marking practices in their school are unmanageable and a massive 84% of primary teachers are still required to hand in their daily or weekly written lesson plans for scrutiny by SLT.
So how can you tell if your teacher stress is causing harm to your mental and physical wellbeing?
The 5 Signs Of Teacher Stress
Teacher stress can be displayed through many symptoms and some teachers will experience symptoms from all 5 categories listed below and others just from one or two categories.
Disturbed sleep patterns – this includes insomnia or even fatigue and difficulty staying awake
Depression - feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic about the future
Irritability – this can take the form of aggression, impatience and mood swings which can have a detrimental effect on personal relationships, leaving you feeling isolated
Cognitive difficulties – when you are stressed it is difficult to concentrate or make decisions and you may suffer from diminished creativity
Other physical symptoms – this can include muscular tension, headaches, heart palpitations, stomach upsets or skin disorders
Looking After Teacher Mental Health
Stress and poor mental health can kill but there are things you can do to reduce your teacher stress and improve your mental health. It is important you tackle the problem sooner rather than later and here are some things you can try immediately.
Get A Good Sleep Routine
Disturbed sleep is a symptom of stress and it can be difficult to reset your sleep patterns but there are things you can do to try to improve the quality of your sleep and help you get back on track. Try to stick to a sleep schedule so you go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends and avoid afternoon naps. Switch off your screens an hour before you go to bed and read a book or listen to a podcast or audio book rather than looking at your phone or tablet. Having a bath before bedtime can help you relax and regulate your body temperature and a cooler bedroom (around 16°C) is better than a room that is too warm. You should aim to eat your last meal two to three hours before bedtime if you can and try to drink a small glass of water just before bed as this reduces your heart rate, but cut down on alcohol and avoid caffeine close to bedtime. If you do wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing that does not involve looking at a screen such as reading a book and return to bed when you feel sleepier.
Take Care Of Yourself
Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Aim to set aside some time each week for something you enjoy that does not involve school. It may be a sport, craft or other hobby, or it could be a chance to meet up with friends and let off steam or spend time with your family where you entirely focus on being with them and not looking at your laptop or phone. Plan this ahead of time and agree to do something every week that allows you to have a mental break away from work.
Talk To Somebody
Just talking to someone about how you feel can be helpful as it can release some of the built-up tension you may be feeling. Talking things through with your department head, another teacher or somebody completely unrelated to work can help you find solutions to your stress that you are unable to see. If you find yourself stressed about what somebody else has said or done then talking to somebody else may help you see another point of view to allow you to let go of grudges – they affect you and your state of mind more than the other person.
Work Out Your Priorities
Write down a list of tasks that are possible to achieve. Prioritise them in order of importance and tackle the hardest, most important task first. Tick off the tasks when you have completed them so you can see the progress you have made rather than only focusing on what you still need to do.
Take Your Time
Working frantically and juggling too many things at once leads to errors and additional stress. If you are asked to do something that you don’t know how to do, request time to orient yourself to the situation and ask for help on how to do it. Plan your lessons ahead of time. Make sure you know what you are going to be doing for the following week so you can get ahead with tasks and not feel harassed and overwhelmed.
Learn To Say No
This can be difficult, especially in school and there are some things we cannot say no to, but often teachers take on additional duties because they don’t know how to say no. If you are asked to do something that is not essential and you don’t want to do it, then say no. That is easier said than done but with practice it does get easier. Firstly, don't beat around the bush, say “No” and if you feel the need, give a brief explanation "I appreciate your asking me for help, but I'm stretched too thin to take on extra tasks right now." That is polite, makes it clear that you are not going to help them and doesn’t need any additional explanation.
Get Help If You Need It
If you are struggling with teacher stress or feel your mental health is suffering, then there are ways you can get help. You can talk to your GP who can refer you to further sources of help or talk to your union representative. Remember, you are not alone and there is no shame in asking for help when you need it.