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Teachers’ health not an option but an imperative

Developing an integrated occupational health system

Deirdre MacDonald
President, Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland

Mental health is perhaps the most important public health issue of our time. This article looks at why mental health is so important in teaching, what affects it, and how we might protect and promote it in education. It makes a morally sound and strong business case for developing and maintaining a fruitful and flourishing working environment for teachers.

Through whichever prism you view the issue of teachers’ health – that of morality, economics, education, or sustainability – it is clearly imperative that it be addressed in a systematic manner. Health and safety is a fundamental human right (ILO, 2008) and should not be viewed as an optional extra or a privilege.

Mental health is an important, perhaps the most important, public health issue of our time. Why is it so important in teaching? What affects it? How do we protect and promote it? These are questions for all workplaces, but are especially pertinent for schools as places now spending much time and energy on well-being.

Relationship between pressure and performance

The idea that additional professional demands can incessantly be made on teachers while continually improving performance is a complete fantasy. What actually happens is that the individual suffers a deterioration in mental and physical health, and the school displays organisational symptoms such as high staff turnover, increased sick leave, poor morale, and lost opportunities, capacity, and efficacy (see image, from MacDonald, 2017).

Research by Mental Health Ireland (2001) identified these primary stressors in the workplace: too much work, work intensification, responsibility for others in the workplace, not having control over your work, and poor communications. These issues manifest in schools in the multiplicity of teachers’ roles, contradictions in roles, attitudinal change in society (often directly opposed to the culture and values of the school), uncertain and possibly contradictory objectives of the education system, and the devaluing of the teaching profession, in particular the classroom teacher (ETUCE and EFEE, 2011; TUC, 2013).

Positive mental health enables us to flourish and fulfil our potential, including the opportunity to thrive in our professional lives. The National Economic and Social Forum (2007) gives cognisance to its importance and potential. Mental health is an enormous resource in any workplace but none more so than in the education sector. Teachers’ life experiences are a huge additional resource. They bring energy, wisdom, experience, knowledge, and skill to school life and relationships, greatly enhancing the educational experience and mental health of the whole school community.

The fact that teachers are not merely subject experts but whole people, with many facets to their lives, enhances their ability to understand and approach the many personal problems they encounter in their work with students. This work is often voluntary but takes up an increasing proportion of their ever-diminishing personal time. But while this element of professional life may bring a sense of fulfilment to the teacher and benefit to others, it often increases stress levels and puts significant pressure on teachers’ mental health (see diagram, from Wynne, 1999).

The non-acceptance by school management of these facts exacerbates the situation for the individual and for the organisation as a whole. Research found that negative attitudes by management result in risks for employees in disclosing mental health difficulties. This is of particular importance in light of the continued casualisation of the labour market (NESF, 2007) and applies to the teaching profession with the growth of the hours culture.


Dynamics of Stress in Teaching

Unsustainable situation

The last comprehensive research into teacher stress in Ireland across primary and post-primary education was done in 1990 – thirty years ago. The world is a very different place, Ireland is a very different country, and these changes are reflected in the schools across the country. Classrooms and staffrooms are almost unrecognisable from thirty years ago because of the integration of students with special education needs and students from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds, the increase in family situations that impact negatively on classroom management, the use of social media, and the time and energy given over to bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, Ireland remains in last place – thirty-fifth of the OECD countries – in terms of investment in education as a percentage of GDP (OECD, 2018). Despite this, Ireland continues to perform very well in the PISA assessments (OECD, 2015). This situation comes at a cost, and it is being paid by those working in the education sector. The situation is unsustainable.

The Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice continually refers to ‘whole school approach’, ‘wellbeing of school personnel’, ‘commitment to collaborative actions’, and ‘extensive consultation with stakeholders and international research and practice’ (DES, 2018). In developing this document, the Department of Education and Skills did not consult with any organisation representing the teaching profession, and it accords only the most cursory attention to the well-being of teachers and other school personnel:

Recognition for the demanding and extensive nature of teachers’ work as holistic educators is necessary so that teachers can do this critical and transformative work without too high a cost to themselves. (O’Brien, 2008, p. 179)

A Vision for Change (Government of Ireland, 2006), the document which sets out a policy framework for mental health, identifies the population perspective model of mental health promotion as a viable and productive template, because it can put in place programmes and interventions tailored to specific groups and settings. The school as a workplace is one such setting. This model of health promotion is important, as it is seen internationally as a capacity-building measure in that it empowers individuals, groups, and organisations to fulfil their potential.

Primary Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) comprises legal protection: the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005. Employers have a statutory obligation and a duty of care (i) to protect employees from hazards which could lead to mental or physical ill-health, (ii) to draw up a written assessment of all known hazards, including psychosocial hazards, and (iii) to put in place procedures or implement control measures to eliminate or reduce workplace hazards (Wynne et al., 2014).

By far the greatest workplace hazard for teachers is stress. The figures on teacher retirements due to mental ill-health from the Civil Service Occupational Health Department (46%) and the insurance industry/salary protection (43%) are evidence of this. It is worth remembering that these figures represent only those who are unable to continue their professional life. What of the teachers who are struggling in the workplace? Ireland has experienced one of the sharpest increases in workplace stress between 2010 and 2015, from 8% to 17% (ESRI and HSA, 2018).

Work-related stress is not an individual weakness, but instead is an individual reaction to organisational and/or interpersonal problems at work. Therefore it has to be tackled at an organisational level. Furthermore it is a multi-causal problem that requires multi-dimensional solutions. (ETUCE and EFEE, 2011, p. 7)

Work-related stress: an occupational hazard

In 2004, European Social Partners recognised work-related stress as an occupational hazard and committed to preventing and tackling this problem in the workplace. The Health and Safety Authority’s Work Positive tool for auditing the psychosocial environment in workplaces, if adapted specifically for the education sector, offers a significant resource to schools and the opportunity to collate national data which can be analysed and trends established.

European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) projects on work-related stress have shown that psychosocial hazards can severely damage the working environment in schools. They found the main stressors and the organisational impact to be very much in line with those outlined above (ETUCE and EFEE, 2011). For the individual it can mean a negative impact on mental and physical health, and possibly a breakdown.

With the changes in retirement age and pension provision for newer entrants to teaching, it is more necessary than ever to give serious attention to teachers’ health. It is a matter of system sustainability.

In Finland there is an integrated occupational health model, Maintaining Workability. It is a statutory obligation across public and private sectors. The Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland all scored in the top ten in the 2016 Global Workforce Happiness Index, and there is a lot we can learn from them: planned interventions to solve specific problems, a consensual approach to workplace issues, an emphasis on the psychosocial environment, strong trade union involvement, and a regulated workplace. Stevenson and Farmer (2017, p. 29) summarise the business case for a progressive, integrated approach to occupational health: ‘organisations managing their most important asset – people’.

Employment Assistant Service

Prevention measures are sometimes insufficient, necessitating a secondary intervention. Stress management is about how the individual copes with stress, be its source in or outside the workplace. The Employee Assistance Service provides such a service. It does not concern itself with the organisational aspect of preventing or reducing stress through structural changes. Rather, it works at an individual level, such as offering coping strategies and financial advice.

This service requires external evaluation to inform development of an integrated approach to employees’ health, in line with international standards in this area. Wynne et al. (2014, p. 32) write: ‘Good policy is not sufficient to ensure good practice – a proper infrastructure is also needed.’

A policy document does not fulfil the DES’s role in teachers’ health, nor is a mere statement of intent sufficient to fulfil management’s statutory obligation. Human resources are ‘core’ because they are essential to society and the economy. There is no concrete recognition of the value that teachers’ work generates for society. At present, when everything is evaluated in monetary terms, no cost–benefit analysis even attempts to capture what is really done in schools.

True collaboration and engagement with the partners in education is required to move towards a comprehensive, integrated model of occupational health. Promoting teachers’ health is not merely an option: it is an imperative.


Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2018) Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Implementation. Dublin: Government Publications.

Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Health and Safety Authority (HSA) (2018) Job Stress and Working Conditions: Ireland in Comparative Perspective. Dublin: ESRI.

ETUCE (European Trade Union Committee for Education) and EFEE (European Federation of Education Employers) (2011) ‘Teachers’ work-related stress: Assessing, comparing and evaluating the impact of psychosocial hazards on teachers at their workplace’. Brussels: ETUCE.

Government of Ireland (2006) Vision for Change. Dublin: Government Publications.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) (2008) Seoul Declaration on Safety and Health at Work. ILO and Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency.

Mac Donald, D. (2017) ‘The Nature of the Problem’. ESSDE Seminar: The Promotion of Healthy Workplaces in Education. Dublin, 27 June.

Mental Health Ireland (2001) Are You Stressed? A Survey of the General Public. Dublin: Mental Health Ireland.

National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) (2007) Mental Health and Social Inclusion. Dublin: NESF.

O’Brien, M. (2008) Well-Being and Post-Primary Schooling: A review of the literature and research. Dublin: National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

OECD (2015) PISA 2015 Results: Excellence and Equity in Education. Paris: OECD.

OECD (2018) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD.

Stevenson, T. and Farmer, P. (2017) Thriving at Work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers. London.

Trades Union Congress (TUC) (2013) Work and Well-Being: A Trade Union Resource. London: TUC.

Wynne, R. (1999) Creating a Healthy Teaching Environment: Stress Prevention in Teaching Project. Seminar, Dublin.

Wynne, R. (2009) Research and Information in Workplace Health Promotion. Workplace Health Promotion training. Bucharest.

Wynne, R., De Broeck, V., Vandenbroek, K., Leka, S., Jain, A., Houtman, I., McDaid, D., and Park, A.-L. (2014) Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace: Guidance to implementing a comprehensive approach. European Commission: Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

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