Excessive workload and working hours are continually cited by teachers as one of the main causes of their workplace stress. This advice explains how to tackle stress at a local level in your workplace.

How bad are staff stress levels in education?

Stress has been described by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”. Although stress itself is not a disease, it is recognised that excessive or prolonged stress can be a cause of mental and physical illness.

HSE research has found that one in five people – an estimated five million workers – is ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed at work, and that stress, anxiety and depression nationally lead to more than 11.5 million lost working days each year. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that the cost of stress to the British economy amounts to more than ten per cent of its gross national product (GNP).

Studies into the extent of work-related stress in Britain have consistently found that school staff are among the most stressed workers in Britain. HSE statistics for the years 2010/11 to 2016/17 show that education is consistently one of the three occupations experiencing the highest levels of work-related stress.

These statistics are confirmed by an academic study carried out in 2015 by Sir Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester, who stated that out of approximately 80 occupations he had studied, teachers were in the top three most stressed occupations, alongside the health and uniformed services.

The TUC’s 2016 survey of safety representatives found that stress was the top concern for safety reps in education. Nearly 90 per cent of all safety reps working in the sector cited stress as one of their main workplace health and safety concerns.

Data on occupational suicides published by the Office for National Statistics in March 2017 show that female primary and nursery school teachers had a heightened risk of suicide. Between 2011 and 2015 there were 139 suicides among female teachers and nearly 75 per cent (102) of these were primary or nursery teachers. Although it may not always be possible to demonstrate a direct causal link between the stresses of teaching and such tragedies, evidence suggests that stressors such as Ofsted/Estyn inspections have been connected to teacher suicides in recent years.

In December 2012, The Guardian found that the number of teachers taking sick leave as a result of stress had increased by ten per cent over the previous four years, with 15 local authorities seeing a 50 per cent rise in stress-related absences, according to statistics released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The FOI request found that 40 out of the 60 authorities which responded saw an increase in the number of teachers taking sick leave arising from stress between the academic years 2008/9 and 2011/12. The sharpest rises were in Tower Hamlets in London (up from 16 to 102 incidents), Oldham (up from 41 to 113) and Walsall (27 to 74).

A survey of teachers in 2013 by financial services provider Teachers’ Assurance revealed that stress levels within the profession were affecting the ability of teachers to successfully perform their roles. The organisation found that 76 per cent of teachers believed their stress levels were having repercussions on their health, while 56 per cent said they would definitely be better at their job if they were less stressed. Some 51 per cent admitted to ‘severe’ levels of work-related stress, whilst 64 per cent of respondents indicated that the threat of performance-related pay had increased their stress levels. Furthermore, the survey found that classroom teachers were more likely to feel the repercussions of stress than those in middle or senior management roles.

In 2018, research conducted by Leeds Beckett University found that the majority of teachers surveyed (77 per cent) felt that poor teacher mental health was having a detrimental effect on pupils’ progress. Ninety-four per cent said that their classroom energy levels dropped when they were suffering poor mental health and nearly as many said they were less creative during these times. Of those surveyed, more than half said that they had experienced poor mental health.

The human consequences of this excessive stress on teachers are serious and wide ranging, and can include physical symptoms such as headaches, raised blood pressure, infections, digestive disorders, heart disease or cancer; mental health symptoms such as withdrawal, poor concentration, anxiety, depression, insomnia, ‘burn-out’ and an increased risk of suicide; and behavioural consequences such as low self-esteem, increased drug or alcohol intake and deteriorating personal relationships leading to family, relationship or career problems.

Workload and the causes of teacher stress

Research evidence has shown that the main sources of the current high levels of teacher stress include:

  • excessive workload and working hours – often exacerbated by a surfeit of government ‘initiatives’
  • poor pupil behaviour, which itself is often compounded by issues such as large class sizes
  • pressures of assessment targets and inspections
  • management bullying
  • stress of appraisal and performance-related pay
  • the threat or instigation of capability proceedings
  • lack of professional opportunities.

The 2017 NEU workload survey found that 81 per cent of teachers had considered leaving teaching in the last year because of workload. When asked what the causes of their unsustainable workload demands were, the findings showed that the following reasons were cited the most:

  • 74% said pressure to increase pupil test scores/exam grades
  • 52% said changes to curriculum/assessment/exams
  • 46% said Ofsted, mock inspections, other inspections
  • 41% said lack of money and resources in the school
  • 33% said demands from school leaders/governors
  • 33% said reduction of support staff.

Workload and working hours

Excessive workload and working hours are continually cited by teachers as one of the main causes of their workplace stress; this is supported by a TUC unpaid overtime league table, published in 2017, in which teachers emerged as one of the occupational groups carrying out the largest amount of unpaid overtime in the UK, with 51.8 per cent working an average of 12.1 hours of unpaid overtime each week.

The last Department for Education (DfE) survey of teachers’ working hours in 2016 showed that all categories of teacher were working more than 50 hours a week with primary classroom teachers working 55.5 hours per week on average and secondary teachers doing 53.5 hours per week on average. Primary school teachers with less than six years’ experience reported working 18.8 hours overtime each week, two hours extra than more experienced colleagues.

A survey carried out by The Guardian newspaper in 2016 found that 82 per cent of teachers said their workload was ‘unmanageable’ and three quarters reported working between 49 and 65 hours per week. Seventy-five per cent of respondents said workload was having a serious impact on their mental health, and nearly as many (73 per cent) on their physical health.

Ofsted inspections and stress

A survey carried out by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in 2013 found that 90 per cent of teachers felt that an Ofsted inspection had created additional pressure and stress for them. Only seven per cent of respondents felt that inspections supported school improvement, and nearly half believed it did not. Eighty-four per cent identified that Ofsted inspections created additional significant workload.

In addition to the inspection itself, the outcome of an Ofsted/Esytn inspection can also cause stress for teachers, specifically if the school is put into special measures or deemed to ‘require improvement’. There is often direct pressure put on school leaders in such situations, and this can have implications for other staff as well. They are likely to be subjected to more regular inspections, and may be put under further pressure by school leaders.

The NEU continues to undertake wide ranging work in pursuit of changes to the current education system which would reduce the unreasonable demands upon members which give rise to stress.

This work includes, in particular: continuing representations to Government and employers to secure reductions in workload; negotiations to improve conditions of service; continuing work to seek reductions in excessive bureaucracy and working time; campaigning in support of teachers faced with unacceptable pupil behaviour; work to secure a more appropriate Ofsted/Estyn inspection framework; and support and assistance for members facing harassment and bullying in the workplace.

In response to pressure from the NUT and other teaching unions, Ofsted released a clarification document in March 2015, detailing what teachers and schools are not expected to do in preparation for inspections. This aimed to dispel myths that Ofsted inspections contribute to excessive workload for teachers. For instance, the document confirms that teachers are not expected to give written evidence of dialogue with pupils in their marking, and that schools are not required to provide individual or previous lesson plans to Ofsted.

It is important that all school leaders are aware of it and are adjusting their practices accordingly. Worryingly, a survey carried out with NUT reps in 2015 found that, while approximately 85 per cent of respondents were aware of the Ofsted guidance, only five per cent said that this had had any positive impact on their work/life balance.

How to tackle workplace stress

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health of their employees at work. This includes taking steps to make sure they do not suffer stress-related illness as a result of their work. This statutory regime supplements the ‘common law’ obligations on employers to provide reasonably safe working environments for their employees.

Employers also have a specific duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to undertake risk assessments that seek to identify and eliminate or reduce risks to their employees’ health, safety and welfare. Stress is one of the risks to health, safety and welfare that must be assessed. Local authorities, governing bodies, multi academy trusts and all other employers of teachers must:

  • consider the risk of stress among their workforce
  • take steps to remove the risk
  • where removal of the risk is not possible, reduce the risk by any necessary changes in working practices or by introducing appropriate protective or supportive measures.

Employers also have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to the working conditions of teachers suffering from certain stress-related illnesses, such as mental illness. Such reasonable adjustments could include flexible working arrangements, altered hours or re-allocating certain tasks for a teacher who was experiencing mental illness. It is important to note that stress itself is not classified as a disability under the Equality Act; rather it is diagnosed mental illness, (eg depression, anxiety disorder) that is covered by the Act, and such mental illness may have been caused or made worse by workplace stress.

Schools also have a public sector Equality Duty as laid out in the Equality Act 2010, and must give due regard to eliminating discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity within the workplace. Disability is one of the ‘protected characteristics’ covered by the Equality Act, and teachers experiencing mental illness should not be discriminated because of this. Further information on the Equality Act 2010 can be found on the website of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights .

The Management Standards approach

The HSE has developed Management Standards, an approach to workplace stress which aims to “provide a yardstick against which to measure performance in tackling the causes of work-related stress”.

Although the Management Standards are voluntary, the NEU believes they can serve as a useful tool for employers in understanding how to carry out a risk assessment for workplace stress. The Management Standards contain six key risk factors – or ‘stressors’ – which have been identified as causes of work-related stress. These are:

  • the demands of your job
  • what control you have over your work
  • the support you receive from managers/colleagues
  • your relationships at work
  • your role in the organisation
  • change and how it is managed.

Each standard contains simple statements about good management practice for each of the six stressors, which form a useful guide for carrying out stress audits and stress risk assessments. They also act as a benchmark for organisations to assess how they are performing in relation to the six standards, and to assist in determining targets for improvement and action plans.

What is a stress audit?

The distinction between risk assessments and stress audits must be clearly established at the outset.

Risk assessment is a specific legal requirement upon employers which is governed by the provisions of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Employers must by law carry out risk assessments with regard to any work process which poses a potential risk to the health and safety of employees. The regulations require employers to ensure that risk assessments are carried out by ‘competent persons’ who must have appropriate experience, knowledge, support and training. Risk assessments must seek to identify the extent of any risks to health and safety, and must also establish measures to remove or reduce those risks.

The provisions of risk assessment apply to the risk of work-related stress in the same way as to any other established health and safety issue. With regard to stress, therefore, employers must not only investigate the levels and causes of stress but must also investigate, propose and implement measures to remove or reduce the problems identified. Any purported stress risk assessment which does not set out appropriate measures which are then acted on by the employer is not a risk assessment which satisfies the law’s requirements.

Stress audits will usually investigate the levels and/or causes of stress but will not necessarily investigate or propose solutions. They may be carried out by employers or trade unions. Where employers conduct stress audits which investigate a problem but do not also consider, propose and implement solutions, they will not have satisfied their legal obligations to conduct risk assessments. Trade unions, on the other hand, are free to conduct stress audits which investigate the problem but stop short of identifying such solutions.

Trade union stress audits should not be described as risk assessments even where they include recommendations for proposed solutions. Risk assessments are the responsibility of employers. Maintaining this distinction between risk assessments and stress audits is not just a matter of words. Describing work carried out by trade unions as risk assessments will lead to continuing confusion about employers’ responsibilities and will make it less likely that employers themselves accept these responsibilities and carry out and implement proper risk assessments.

NEU advice on undertaking stress audits

Stress audits can examine either or both of two separate areas. They can look at the extent and levels of stress among school staff, measured by means of questions relating to stress indicators; and they can look at the causes of stress, measured by means of questions relating to particular stressors.

Stress audits can be carried out in whichever way is seen as most appropriate at local level. They can be conducted through group discussions within individual schools about stress and its causes. Alternatively, they can be conducted via online surveys across the division or association using a sample of schools or sample of NEU members, or within an individual school.

The NEU provides a standardised online Stress Survey which can be distributed to members locally within a school, or across a division or academy trust. School reps, health and safety reps or local officers can request to use the survey from head office.

Benefits of online surveys include that the responses can remain anonymous and provide clear evidence of the problems to management.

However they are conducted, stress audits will serve the function of consciousness-raising as well as gathering evidence of the nature of problems.

Different schools will have different problems. In one school, pupil behaviour may be the major stress factor for all or some staff. In others, it may stem from other causes such as management style, physical conditions or excessive workload.

When the most common issues of concern have been identified, they can be brought to the attention of the school’s management and/or the employer in order that these can be considered as part of the employer’s risk assessment. No more needs be done as there is no obligation to propose solutions, but reps may wish to seek a scheme of negotiations on this area around the employer’s risk assessment as staff are often best placed to suggest what would help resolve issues in their school.

Stress audits are a form of safety inspection within the HSE’s definition of safety inspections that may be carried out by safety representatives under the 1977 Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations. Safety reps involved in carrying out stress audits, both within individual schools and more widely across the branch or district, are therefore entitled to such time off with pay as is necessary to conduct the audit and write up its findings.

For more information, please download the full ‘Tackling stress’ guidance for more information, including a sample stress risk assessment and audit.

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