Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that by 2021, around one in five adults (21 percent) were likely to be living with depression of some form.  This represents a doubling of the proportion pre-pandemic (one in ten).

Causes of mental ill-health during the pandemic

As key workers, staff working in education have been particularly at risk of mental ill-health.  Contributory factors have included:

  • anxiety about becoming ill with COVID-19, especially amongst higher risk groups;
  • anxiety about developing long Covid and being unable to work for a long period;
  • anxiety about the safety of educational premises, Covid risk management, and whether effective mitigations were in place – especially with regard to social distancing and face masks;
  • financial anxieties – both personal and connected with school funding;
  • anxiety about Covid rules being relaxed too soon/not stepped up quickly enough to reflect the prevalence of the disease;
  • isolation, whether as a direct result of infection or generally because of lockdowns;
  • anxiety around the sudden implementation of new working practices such as online learning, without notice, and the consequences of such changes;
  • work-related stress, anxiety, and depression arising as a result of hugely increased workload due to COVID-19; and
  • anxiety concerning the rigidity with which some employers implemented absence management policies – in too many cases these have been applied punitively and with the result that education workers have lost their jobs.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, some of these concerns will hopefully recede.  But workload – having increased significantly during the pandemic – may take time to settle back even to the already high pre-pandemic levels especially given current labour market shortages, not least in education.  Meanwhile, financial worries are likely to persist in the context of the ongoing cost of living crisis. 

On long Covid (see NEU advice) many will require support with mental health issues. One study showed that 34% of people were suffering from mood disorders or anxiety six months after their initial COVID-19 infection, while another showed a slight increase in both mental health issues between six months and 12 months. The ONS Long Covid report published on 3 March 2022 highlights that in terms of occupations, the prevalence of self-reported long Covid was highest among those working in teaching and education, followed by social care and health care, reflecting increased exposure to Covid-19 in these sectors. Education staff who are suffering from long Covid will in many cases have contracted Covid-19 at work.   

Prevalence of Covid-related mental ill-health in education

According to the HSE, teaching and other educational professionals were already among those with statistically higher rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety before the onset of the pandemic, so the effect of COVID-19 has been to exacerbate existing problems still further.

A report from Education Support in 2020 found that 52 per cent of teachers felt their mental health and wellbeing had suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October 2020, a GMB poll to mark World Mental Health Day found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of respondents said their work during the pandemic had a serious negative impact on their mental health.  In particular, the survey found that workers in schools – along with retail, care and outsourced services - reported experiencing the highest levels of anxiety.

Taking action on mental ill-health arising from Covid-19

Health and safety law

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 employers have a duty to protect the mental health of their employees in the same way as they must protect their physical health.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the risks to physical and mental health to which their employees and others are exposed at work.

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 confer the statutory right on safety reps to, inter alia:

  • Investigate potential hazards such as overwork, poor planning, and understaffing
  • Investigate member complaints
  • Be consulted by the employer about health and safety matters
  • Obtain health and safety information from the employer
  • Be granted paid time off to carry out their functions.

Where a union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes, an employer who receives a written request from a minimum of two reps must set up a safety committee within three months of such a request.

Using negotiation and consultation rights

  • The NEU guidance COVID-19: What you need to know – staff mental health and wellbeing clearly establishes that members should not support COVID-19 protocols or new working practices that are likely to cause distress and/or additional workload.  NEU safety reps should use their negotiation and consultation rights to ensure that any management changes are accepted by members and do not add to existing workload.

Stress risk assessments

This principle emphasises the importance of monitoring levels of stress in the workplace, reviewing its effects on the workforce and taking action to tackle the root causes of stress. Persistently high levels of stress can lead to distress, exhaustion, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.  It is counter-productive and not only impacts on the mental and physical wellbeing of school/college staff, but also impacts on the school/college by affecting job performance and productivity, not to mention the financial costs of covering sick leave and recruiting replacement staff.

More guidance on stress risk assessments can be found here.

What types of mental health conditions can be caused by stress?

  • Stress caused by, for example, excessive workload or poor communication and conflict at work, often unrecognised and unaddressed, can lead to mental illness.  Anxiety, depression, withdrawal, poor concentration, insomnia, low self-esteem, increased dependency on drugs and alcohol and deteriorating personal relationships may result. 
  • Schools and colleges with large numbers of stressed, demoralised and anxious staff are not able to function efficiently. The educational experience of young people depends upon the effectiveness of teachers, lecturers and support staff and their effectiveness depends upon their wellbeing.
  • Acting to reduce levels of stress within a school/college will lead to less short and long-term sick leave which will, in turn, reduce pressures on other colleagues as well as benefiting pupils/students.
  • School leaders can find out more about preventing mental ill-health here.

Rebutting resilience

Some head teachers and employers favour a ‘resilience’ approach to managing workplace stress and mental health issues.  This NEU advice explains the ‘resilience’ approach, why it does not lead to meaningful improvements for employees and how safety reps should instead seek to tackle work related stress in their school or college.

Homeworking

Those staff who find themselves working at home for Covid-related reasons could be at risk of mental health problems due to isolation.  There is helpful NEU advice here about working hours, socialising and work/life balance for members in such circumstances.

Equality Act 2010

In a number of cases, the effects of a mental impairment meet the requirements of the statutory test for definition as a disability.  For further information about this and related areas such as reasonable adjustments in the workplace, click here.

What does the NEU say?

The NEU argues that the best way to build better mental health in the workforce is to do so collectively.  Working together, union members make workplaces healthier and stronger and it is for this reason that it is so important to elect safety reps and safety committees; to carry out stress surveys and to press employers to undertake stress risk assessments and the measures outlined in ‘Preventing Work-Related Mental Health Conditions by Tackling Stress’ (see above).  Members could also encourage their employer to adopt the NEU Mental Health Charter – this includes a Model Mental Health Policy for adoption in schools/colleges.

Of course, the NEU also intervenes at an individual level.  NEU reps, safety reps and local officers

  • intervene at an early stage of any difficult work situation to ensure members receive help and support before they become ill. This includes taking steps to seek to resolve any work-related problems which are making members ill;
  • act as a ‘buffer’ between members and school management, if they find direct contact difficult during sick leave;
  • help organise flexible working hours, additional class support or a phased return to work;
  • advise on sick leave entitlements; and
  • accompany members to meetings with school management.

Members without a rep or health and safety rep in your school can contact the NEU AdviceLine on 0345 811 8111 in England and Wales and 028 9078 2020 in Northern Ireland.  Better still, consider putting yourself forward as a rep/safety rep.  Full details are available at https://neu.org.uk/become-rep and https://neu.org.uk/advice/role-safety-rep respectively.  Workplace reps and safety reps receive lots of support both from their local NEU and also from NEU headquarters and when someone takes on these roles, they never do so alone.

Who else can help me if I feel that I can’t cope?