Researching, as I do, the well-being of young people and adolescents, it is easy to overlook the mental health of those that come into contact with them on a daily basis at school. In May 2018, The Guardian (Burned out: why are so many teachers quitting or off sick with stress?) reported that teachers were experiencing high levels of stress due to heavy workloads and poor support structures. Has this been borne out in academic research? Certainly, the article I am writing about today is not the first to explore the stress involved in teaching in the UK (and likely it won’t be the last). The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in 2017 stated that teaching had become a high-stress job with low levels of retention. However, distress caused by the job has not been fully explored. Daniel Titheradge, leading a team of researchers across South West England, studied levels of distress amongst primary school teachers. This included levels of persistence and possible correlating reasons.

So first…what do we mean when we say “psychological distress”? If you remember in one of my earlier posts I wrote that well-being is the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions. Psychological distress and how we identify it has been discussed for decades within Psychology. Clarice Veit and John Ware in 1983 argued that mental health could be seen as a combination of psychological distress, composed of many different elements, and psychological well-being. They stated that someone who is experiencing psychological distress will show high levels of anxiety and depression with low emotional control. In other words, distress, as you may have guessed, is shown through stress, low moods and being prone to tearfulness!

Now moving onto our study. Psychological distress was measured via the “Everyday Feelings Questionnaire”. This measures emotions associated with mood and anxiety along with feelings of being able to cope with everyday life. When undertaking research within a specific cohort (in this case teachers) it is always useful to have a comparison group. Interestingly, the researchers not only chose participants in similar professions but also those who have been identified as clinically depressed. It was a longitudinal study taking place at four points over 30 months with a lower than average drop out rate. Results indicate that teachers reported higher levels of psychological distress compared to comparative professionals but lower than those in the clinical group. However, many of the teacher’s scores indicated low levels of clinical mental health. Additionally, this was consistent over the 30 months and not dependent on an academic term. Surprisingly, older teachers were more likely to report psychological distress, as it would be hoped that experience would act as a mediator. The authors didn’t offer a possible reason for this, but other research has suggested that burn-out increases with time in the job. Increasing responsibility may also add to the psychological burden of experienced teachers.

Within the positive psychological movement, there are many techniques that can be used to increase resilience and therefore reduce symptoms of psychological distress. Mindfulness has been shown to be a useful tool in helping control responses to negative emotions. However, such interventions place the responsibility solely on the shoulders of individual teachers to function in a system that may not be conducive to teacher well-being.

Globally we know that psychological distress is not present in all school systems, (the now famous Finnish school system has good teacher support and outcomes). However, it remains a fact that the UK has evolved a system in which teachers are leaving the profession or moving to other more compassionate settings.