How unsustainable workloads are destroying the quality of teaching

Many teachers blame poor mental health on the stress on increasing workloads. The approaching general election makes it a prime time to lobby for change .

Teachers do not enter the profession expecting to work 9 to 5, but workloads are spiralling out of control.

Struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance is a big issue for many teachers who routinely sacrifice their lunch breaks, evenings and much of their weekends to planning, marking and what many deem unnecessary paperwork. The Labour Force Survey 2013 showed that teaching staff in schools, colleges and universities across the UK work, on average, an extra 12 hours unpaid overtime each week – that’s more than any other profession, including financial directors, lawyers and health workers.

The Department for Education’s Teachers’ Workload Diary Survey 2013 found that teachers work more than 50 hours a week, rising above 60 hours for primary teachers and secondary heads. More than half (55 per cent) said that some of their time was spent on unnecessary or bureaucratic tasks; 45 per cent said this had increased from the previous year.

Time locked up in offices filling out forms could be better spent in the classroom or on continuing professional development, both of which could have more tangible benefits for our students’ learning. As the paperwork mounts up, we at Teacher Support Network know how it can lead to mental and physical illnesses as staff struggle to cope. More than 12,800 calls to our helpline in the past two years have highlighted a range of mental health issues, many them work-related.

Our Education Staff Health Survey 2014, published this week, found that 91 per cent of school teachers have experienced stress in the past two years, while a further 74 per cent suffered anxiety and 47 per cent had depression. Ninety-one per cent blamed excessive workload as the major cause.
This is a rise of 13 per cent over the past six years, showing that workloads are unabating. Four in five teachers told us this year that their mental health could be improved if managers worked with staff to reduce workload.

Teachers work an extra 12 hours unpaid overtime every week — more than any other profession

And what is the impact on their teaching? Around three in four told us they lost confidence, 59 per cent said their work performance suffered, while more than a quarter took time off as a result of mental health problems.

A primary school teacher from Greater London, who was off sick with a double chest infection in December 2012, said: “I love teaching and hate it in equal measure. I work 65 hours a week. My doctor said he should give me a prescription for a new job.”

Another sixth-form science teacher from the north of England was signed off for four months this year with myalgic encephalomyelitis. “I physically collapsed
at school because of stress. I spoke to my
line manager but she said everyone is struggling, it’s hard in the run-up to Ofsted, it’s normal.”

Teacher burnout can be costly – the Audit Commission calculated in 2011 that teacher sickness absence costs more than £500 million – while our research already shows there could be a link between a teacher’s health and their students’ outcomes. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan chimed with this when she told the recent Conservative Party conference: “I don’t
want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well.”

Teachers will be pleased then that Ms Morgan has recognised that the government can no longer ignore the elephant in the (class)room and is keen to talk to unions and teachers about cutting workload. It comes after years of feeling sidelined by government, feeling the weight of curriculum reforms and being told by Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw that teachers don’t know what stress is.

Our health survey shows how poor mental health at work, as a result of unsustainable workloads and a lack of support, it is destroying the quality of teaching. We need to ensure that politicians do not use teacher workload as an election tool but understand that changes are needed now.


Julian Stanley is Chief Executive of the Teacher Support Network Group

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  1. Rachel Hall

    How right this article is. After 10 years of outstanding teaching I have decided to leave the profession, the workload is unbearable and is ripping my family apart. I fly into blind rages due to stress. I work most weekends and evenings. I have to do admin that the office staff used to do, quality marking, planning for 2 year groups, my 3 co-ordinator roles, foundation stage provision and assessment including data analysis (what exactly does the head teacher do???!!!!), deal with pissed off parents because I have no time to hear their child read and I’m not stretching them enough and the recent icing on the cake – cleaning my own classroom at the end of the day and due to redcent changes my TA can no longer help me with any displays, resources or setting up as they must be with children all the time. I cannot teach anywhere near as good as I used to due to pure exhaustion and being pulled in too many directions. I rarely eat or even get time to go to the toilet ( a basic human right). I’ve had anxiety, depression and anger management counselling and need to drink in the evenings just to calm down after feeling overwhelmed at what I need to do and cannot achieve. It’s got to stop. It’s inhumane. Please someone listen to us!!!!

  2. As a former teacher who lives with a teacher what really winds me up is workload being accepted as “that’s just what the job is”. This is absolute nonsense, the burden of planning and marking keeps increasing with ever-more detailed marking policies, the new curriculum and initiative upon initiative.

    Teacher’s are exploited because the planning/marking part of the job was always after-hours. This has meant that the increased workload has been absorbed and hidden.

    At a kids birthday party at the weekend I found myself sitting with 3 other parents, all of us having taught for 4 years and then had enough. I fear that this is a feature of the current regimen – exploit younger people who have the time and energy and don’t know better.

  3. The teaching profession is turning into the music industry; get them young, work them to the bone until they burn out and have a breakdown. Then sack them off and start again.

    I work in FE and this year I just thought, The amount of work they expect me to do as course leader is actually impossible. I refuse to kill myself over it, and this year have only concentrated on planning fun relevant lessons. The result, I am relaxed and happy, this affects my demeanour in class, which in turn rubs off on the students. It’s an upward spiral, but sooner or later someone will demand lots of paperwork that ‘proves’ I can do my job, at the expense of me actually doing it

  4. a c Earl

    I loved teaching….I spent 8 years training to be a teacher, 8 years teaching, then left because I was too ill to Continue. I had been going to the doctor for 4 years and was told I was stressed and depressed, but I knew it was more than this. After another 3 years of visiting various doctors, I was finally diagnosed with ME/CFS. Relief at finding out what I had, but disappointment at the prospect of no cure, and never being able to return to my teaching career. When will the powers that be, stop de-professionalising the career…just to become a teacher takes long hours of dedication, then the politician’s undermine that training and do not recognise a teachers expertise. To have to write every thought down to support a decision, is ridiculous and wasting time that could be spent on the pupils. There is no work life balance for teachers anymore, just work and sleep (if you’re lucky).

  5. Caroline Denson

    I am a teacher of good standing for the past 10 years and this is my last year as a teacher, with nowhere to go. All I know is that I can not take any more. I recently saw a report on Newsnight about the falling numbers of teachers and they all stated paper work and work load as the main problem for stress and mental health problems. I was hugely disappointed that the real reason teachers are stressed was not mentioned, because they are too scared of losing their jobs if they put their heads above the parapets. The reason that so many teachers are leaving, is because of behaviour. No other reason, BEHAVOIUR of the students and being powerless to do any thing about it except issue a detention. We receive verbal abuse and aggressive attitudes all day long, but you say anything to a student – then that’s your job on the line. It’s a joke. There you are that’s why teachers are really leaving. The deafening noise levels in schools the abusive manner of students. That is why we are too stressed to deal with our work load because everything else takes all our time and energy and the disruptive students get all the attention and the few great students are being ignored and falling behind – thus losing yet another generation to the unemployment queues. Britain’s white working class are being let down because of their culture and attitude to school life and parents apathy, ethnic minorities are forging ahead due to high work ethic and determination that you don’t get amongst the working class. There. Stick that in your PC hat and smoke it.

  6. Steve Jessop

    Self serving and self preserving careerism is the cancer which is destroying teaching, from the politicians who quote reactionary populist sound bites to buy votes, through HMI, inspector Advisors and senior leadership who exploit those below them whilst unquestioningly dancing to the tune of their paymasters, whether they believe in or know what they are doing or not, just so long as it gets them on the next rung of the ladder. we replicate the same sorry dance on a micro level within schools. Education is becoming reduced to second guessing the subjective vacillations of the self interests of Ofsted inspectors on a career trajectory. Schools are obessed by the requirement to appease these people, to the point where there own philosophy’s are stifled and education is reduced to practicing for the next inspection. School leaders become pale imitators of Ofsted inspectors, thinking they are doing the best thing for teachers and children by creating ever more accountability and quality control procedures which over rely on negative critical evaluation rather than positively developing the context and the skills of those they are supposed to be leading. This. Madness is perpetuated by a the self interests of many who are not accountable to those they are supposed to lead and the self preservation of those that are being led, Most are in both positions at the same time, to varying degrees.

  7. I am in my third year and I think it will be my last.

    I am an English teacher, graded Good with Outstanding (not that I think anything of that) and am told I am a natural. The problem is: being a natural with the kids and a creative individual is pushed to one side in favour of spreadsheets and buzzwords. I’m 27, in the prime of my life and I cannot cope with the feeling of despondency at the end of each day by feeling like I’m not ever going to be good enough. I refuse to spend all my evenings marking, thought I know I need to if I want to keep up with the insane workload. I don’t know what else to do, I just know that my mental health (which already took a huge hit on my NQT year due to rigorous bullying) is feeling ever more fragile.
    It’s the socially accepted norm for teachers to work until they get ill and that’s wrong but where is the public outcry? When did unions and strikes become such dirty words among our own? Heads and Senior Leadership Teams pretend to care but are essentially bureaucrats who are too scared to rock the boat, leaving the most vulnerable on the front line without the correct support.
    I hate the current government for what they stand for and how they’re kicking the stuffing out of good, decent public sector workers so that they can come along and privatise it when it inevitably ‘doesn’t work’ a la academies. I fear that I may be in the wrong profession because I can’t just stand by and watch it happen to me.

    I’ll be gutted to see the last of a classroom, and maybe I’ll find my way into some other form of education; I just can’t go on like this, though.

  8. I am a researcher in Nigeria, West Africa conducting a study of this mayhem of productivity, job performance, satisfaction and capacity development. I observed just like other keen observers that the government only is accountable whether teachers are under a favorable working condition or not. There is no reason why a teacher should be depressed or experience burn-out since they are a critical factor in the teaching industry, after-all they should grow and enjoy job satisfaction like those in other professions.