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15th February 2011


Why are so many teachers made ill by their work?


On the face of it, teaching seems no more stressful an occupation than many others.  In fact, there is a popular misconception that teachers have a pretty easy time.  How often have you heard comments like “9 to 4 and 13 weeks holiday. I wish I had a job like that.” ?


Some general prejudices about teaching may also stem from the fact that almost everyone has been to school.  However, a pupil’s perception of what a teacher does only reflects a part of their job.


It’s also true that what is expected and required of teachers has changed greatly in the last 20 years.  Before 1990 many thought that teachers had far too much autonomy.  If anyone thinks that is the case now, they know little about the work of today’s teachers.


Regardless of anyone’s perception, there is plenty of evidence that teaching is highly stressful and does cause illness.  Judged most stressful occupation by the Health and Safety Executive, many thousands of teachers leave the profession every year citing stress as the cause.  Absence from work due to stress-related illness is high and even suicide rates are 40% higher than the population as a whole.  All of this has a human cost and even the most unsympathetic should worry about the economic cost.


So what causes the stress that teachers experience? As with most serious problems the answer is not simple.  The press and politicians like to point to obvious reasons like pupil behaviour. “If only pupils were better behaved the problem of teacher stress would go away”. Although, pupil behaviour certainly contributes to teacher stress, it is far from being the predominant cause.  Research, including the “Crazy About Work” survey I conducted in 2007, show about a third of teachers identify behaviour as a significant cause of stress.  This compares with  70-80% of teachers identifying unmanageable demands.


In fact, there are multiple stress hazards and teachers will often be facing several. It is also recognised that different teachers may be more or less resilient to the pressures they face.  What causes problems for one teacher will not cause stress for another.  


In my next few blogs I’ll examine some of the different aspects of the teacher’s job that cause high stress levels.