Crunch time


13 February 2023

More than 50 per cent of Australian teachers suffer from anxiety, and nearly one-fifth from depression, according to Mental Health Foundation Australia. Many are so burned out they’re simply giving up, leaving schools with significant shortages.

An UniSA survey of 1600 teachers released in November found 50 per cent of South Australian teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years. A national study from Monash University released in October found only three in 10 teachers planned to stay in the profession.

“A considerable majority of teachers reported that their workloads were unmanageable, and a quarter of teachers reported feeling unsafe in their workplace,” the Monash report says. Respondents highlighted the increasing burden of administration and data collection tasks and limited support from school and system leadership as key issues that led to coping and mental health concerns for teachers, including stress and anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, pressure and fatigue.

“Teachers go to great lengths to do their best, but there’s a line at which you no longer have the time or resources to do it,” says Sallyann Geale, who teaches English and history at Riverside High School in Launceston, Tasmania.

“Every day I see teachers of all ages and levels of experience walking around eating their lunch at the end of the day because they’ve been on the phone to parents, in meetings with other teachers and students, or trying to get to the photocopier.

“The concept of recess and lunchtime doesn’t exist anymore for teachers or anyone who works in a school,” she says. “The workload is excessive and the system is broken.”

Systemic support needed

Teacher mental health is a mounting concern for system and school leaders, says Dr Anna Dabrowski, a senior research fellow at Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

In an article on ACER’s website, Dabrowski writes: “Teachers in our studies also reported having to choose between caring for their own children and caring for the children they teach. Teachers described high levels of stress, vicarious trauma, burnout, low levels of motivation and poor career satisfaction.”

“If we really want to support teachers, these issues must be taken seriously.”

Dabrowski says that despite widespread acknowledgement of the lack of support for teacher wellbeing, there are few programs or practices that successfully address the issue.

“More investment is needed in support structures and practices that ensure the wellbeing – and job satisfaction – of teachers is enabled, particularly during times of crisis,” she says.

Michael Sciffer, a school counsellor in the Armidale region of New South Wales, can’t remember ever working in a team with a full complement of staff. “I’ve been here since 2017 and we’re meant to have seven permanent positions, but we usually have only around four, and we cover towns across the district,” he says.

This year he’s seen experienced, permanent staff members resign due to stress. “The intensity and complexity of our workload has heightened so significantly we can no longer do what we’re required to do as teachers,” says Sciffer.

He believes the key failure is that departmental and political decision-makers don’t understand the link between teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions. “They don’t get it, or they’re turning a blind eye to it,” he says.

The teacher shortages that have been evident for years have only intensified since COVID-19, which has put even more pressure on teachers as students and staff work through the pandemic.

Both Geale and Sciffer are fed up with hearing about what they can do to address workplace wellbeing and selfcare. They say it ignores the underlying causes of teachers’ stress: non-core administrative tasks, no time to collaborate with colleagues, a severe undersupply of teachers.

“You’re never able to plan your days so there’s no sense of control over your job and that adds to the stress,” says Sciffer. “Why do we have to be accessing more support when the solution is to reduce the workload?,” adds Geale.

Supporting teachers supports students

In her article for ACER's website, Dabrowski writes that because teachers play such a critical role in the learning achievements of students, their mental health and wellbeing is equally as important as the students they teach.

“If teachers are not mentally well, their capacity to teach and support children is reduced. Teacher capacity for innovation is critical to building resilient education systems,” she says.

“We need to respect and support teachers as part of transforming education. Let’s start with prioritising initiatives that allow teachers to recover, to be heard, and to be positioned as equal decision-makers in educational reform efforts.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

Managing mental health

Beyond Blue, a mental health and wellbeing support organisation, aims to make it easier for teachers to access the tools they need to manage both their own and their students’ mental health.

The organisation’s Be You education initiative, a collaboration with Early Childhood Australia and Headspace, offers free, comprehensive tools and resources designed for individual teachers, schools and school communities aimed at educating teachers and students in mental health literacy and provide schools with teaching resources.

The initiative has run since November 2018, and has around 13,000 learning communities registered nationally, covering 70 per cent (7237) of schools. It’s a “whole-of-setting approach to educator wellbeing”, says Geri Sumpter, head of Be You delivery.

“We provide structured support for schools. They can access our Be You consultant workforce to assist with targeting what they need to help individuals and the learning community.”

Be You also delivers regular sessions and events for teachers, giving them platforms to explore what other individuals and groups are doing. A recent independent survey of participants so far suggests that engaged learning communities are starting to see the benefits of increasing their mental health literacy.

“Educators say they feel more confident and more capable of having conversations about mental health and wellbeing, as well as the support they can offer to children and young people, and one another,” says Sumpter.

Be You has also launched a policy platform to help address system-level challenges.

“We’re operating across the spectrum, working with state, territory and federal education and health stakeholders. “We’re trying to shift to a holistic view of wellbeing so it doesn’t all fall back on the individual who may already be overwhelmed,” she says.

To learn more about the ‘Be You’ initiative:

This article was originally published In the Australian Educator, Summer 2022