Teacher stress: we need evidence-based solutions

Please note that this blog has not been updated since September 2015 but has been retained for historical interest.

September is the S month. It brings stationery, as pleasing at 50, I find, as at 15. It also brings spiders, sticky-backed plastic. school and stress. Back to school. What a shame that these three little words create feelings of dread in many parents, children and teachers. In the UK, teacher stress has been a frequent topic in the media, with levels on the rise and insurance industry data showing it is the biggest cause of teacher absence after maternity leave.

The findings of the September 2014 survey of almost 2,500 staff in schools and universities, conducted by the Teacher Support Network and summarised in the infographic below, revealed a workforce where the vast majority are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression and say workload is the leading cause.

TSN 900x280px Health & Wellbeing infographic v2
The UK’s Teacher Support Network Education Staff Survey 2014


In 2015, Cochrane published the first systematic review of organisational interventions to improve teacher wellbeing and reduce work-related stressSystematic reviews bring together the best available research studies that could help answer a question like ‘how effective are interventions to improve teacher wellbeing in schools?’. There were just four eligible studies, involving 2199 teachers in schools in the US, China and Australia, evaluating three interventions. One study (961 teachers, 8 schools) evaluated an intervention targeting teachers’ work, with changes to the work environment, more flexibility in work schedules and changes to tasks. Two small studies (43 schools with 59 teachers and 18 schools with 77 teachers) evaluated a school-wide coaching support network alongside individual training for teachers. A third study involved 1102 teachers in 34 schools and compared them with 300 similar schools, assessing a multicomponent intervention comprising performance pay bonuses, mentoring and opportunities for promotion.

What does the evidence say?

  • Changes in teachers’ tasks combined with stress management training resulted in a small reduction in work stress levels and a small improvement in teachers’ ability to do their work, at one-year follow-up, compared with no intervention
  • School-wide coaching plus individual training had no effect on anxiety or depression after two years, nor on burnout or emotional ability after six months
  • The multicomponent intervention was associated with a moderate reduction in teacher resignation

How good is the evidence?

The reviewer authors conclude “Changing the way teachers’ work is organised at schools may improve the teachers’ wellbeing and may reduce teacher resignations.” However, they found the evidence to be full of holes and not good enough to allow conclusions to be drawn with confidence. The quality of the evidence was low. The studies were poorly reported; there is no detail, for example, about the types of changes made to teachers’ tasks, limiting the usefulness of the research. Many of the participants were lost to follow up, with results reported for only eight of the 34 schools which received the multicomponent intervention. With no studies identified from Europe, it’s unclear whether the findings are generalizable to the UK context. The reviewers call for better research so that changes made in schools can be based on evidence.

What do teachers think reduces their stress?

School children and their teacher in a high school science class
“A far more sensible approach to student success at my current school has helped me manage [stress] much better”
One teacher I spoke to, working in a UK primary school, said keeping planning simple and meetings to a minimum helps, as does supporting colleagues and accepting help with tasks. She commented that “we are losing a lot of excellent teachers because of pressures of the job outside the classroom”.

A healthier work-life balance is something another teacher is enjoying since he left his post in one of the top UK private (secondary) schools and started teaching in Tasmania, where his stress levels have plummeted. Along with increased levels of physical activity and some therapeutic colouring, he attributes his freedom from the ‘work-dinner-sleep-work hamster wheel’ to a difference in approach between the two schools.  In his UK school, “we had to rescue sinking students whatever the cost”. His current school takes a “far more sensible approach to student success” with students expected to take more responsibility for themselves and where “teachers facilitate learning but learning must come from the student”. This has enabled him to manage work-related stress much better and “there are fewer episodes of crippling self-doubt”.

I’m sure every teacher will have their own ideas about what might help their stress levels and will have different approaches to managing it, but it would be very helpful to know if there are effective interventions that schools could implement.

So as you start the new term…

…I can’t offer any evidence-based ideas about what might help, but I can leave you with this great clip, of teachers in Des Moines cheering each other up as they prepare to face another term!

If you missed it, catch up with this wonderful blog by 9-year-old Tess about what it’s like to be at school and manage cystic fibrosis.

Creative Commons License
This work by Sarah Chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD010306.pub2/abstract.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD010306.pub2/abstract. Images used within the blog are not available for reuse or reproduction as they are purchased for Evidently Cochrane from istock.com


Naghieh A, Montgomery P, Bonell CP, Thompson M, Aber JL. Organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work-related stress in teachers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD010306. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010306.pub2.

Cochrane summary of this review: http://www.cochrane.org/CD010306/OCCHEALTH_work-changes-to-prevent-and-decrease-stress-in-teachers

Chapman, Sarah. “Back to school: better health, better learning?”. Evidently Cochrane, 29 August 2014. Web. 4 September 2015. https://www.evidentlycochrane.net/back-school/

Precey, Matt. “Teacher stress levels in England ‘soaring’, data shows”. BBC News, 17 March 2015. Web. 4 September 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31921457

Teacher Support Network, Education Support Partnership. “Education Staff Health Survey 2014 report”. Research & Policy, Research Reports.

Teacher stress: we need evidence-based solutions by Sarah Chapman

is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

1 Comments on this post

  1. Well done. A breath of fresh air. I look forward to using this with the staff on August 28th.

    Jane Flannery / Reply

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