Has the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England declined over time?

Has the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England declined over time?

This research used data made available via the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service, which is being expanded and improved with ADR UK funding.

Authors: John Jerrim, Hannah Taylor, Sam Sims, Rebecca Allen (University College London)

Date: January 2020

Research summary

A research project using secure data has identified a recent rise in mental health problems reported by teachers in England. However, this is mirrored by workers in other professions – with little evidence of a simultaneous change in levels of personal wellbeing. The mental health and personal wellbeing of teachers in England has remained broadly stable over the last 20 years, though this group may be more likely to report such problems now (and to have them treated) than previously.

As the first empirical evidence on the wellbeing and mental health of teachers in England over time, this research provides a clearer picture of wellbeing issues among teachers. It has the potential to inform future interventions, including future data linkage to improve monitoring of teachers’ wellbeing.

Teaching has long been recognised as a challenging profession requiring long hours and dedication. Many also now believe that teaching is becoming more onerous: teachers are under increasing pressure from the accountability system, high workloads, and insufficient resources. They are therefore suffering from greater levels of work-related stress than before, which may result in lower levels of wellbeing and poorer mental health.

However, little evidence exists to show how the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England has changed over time. Are teachers suffering more now than ever before? Or is their level of happiness, anxiety, and wellbeing largely unchanged?

This research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first to examine the wellbeing and mental health of teachers in England over time.

Data used

The project accessed the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the Annual Population Survey (APS) through the ONS Secure Research Service.

The LFS provides a good quality point in time and change estimates for various labour market outputs and related topics. The labour market covers all aspects of people’s work, including the education and training needed to equip them for work, the jobs themselves, job-searching for those out of work, and income from work and benefits.

The APS is a continuous survey of households in the UK. It uses data combined from two waves of the main LFS with data collected on a local sample boost. The topics covered in the survey include employment, unemployment, housing, ethnicity, religion, health, and education.

The researchers also analysed NHS Digital’s Health Survey for England (HSE).

DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers):

Methods used

The researchers analysed data for those in the teaching or educational professions, giving a sample size of 20,000 individuals between 1992 and 2018.

Changes over time in teacher mental health and wellbeing could be due to:

  1. The changing nature of teaching
  2. The changing composition of the people who teach
  3. Other factors (such as increasing mental health issues in general amongst the population).

They estimated a series of propensity score matching models by matching teachers from the most recent survey year (such as 2018 in the Labour Force Survey) to a demographically comparable teacher from the previous surveys. The variables included in the matching model were age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, whether they were born in the UK, and whether they work full-time or part-time. By matching based on these characteristics, the researchers were able to prevent changes in the demographic composition of the teaching workforce from confounding their results.

The trends identified for teachers were compared to other occupational groups. In the Labour Force Survey and Annual Population Survey this included:

  • all employed individuals
  • those employed in lower professional or managerial occupations
  • all university graduates
  • those working in health-based occupations (this includes nurses, midwives, physios, occupational therapists, social workers, medical practitioners, and paramedics)
  • those working in selected office jobs (this includes accountants, management consultants, project managers, architects, town planners, surveyors, public relations, statisticians, human resource officers/managers, and IT workers).

These comparators were chosen as they have either previously been compared to teachers in the literature, represent other potentially stressful public sector occupations where women outnumber men (such as health workers), or represent a potential alternative career trajectory that many teachers could have chosen in the private sector (such as office jobs). Due to the smaller sample size in the Health Survey for England, researchers focused on differences between education professionals and ‘all other professional workers’ (those working in a non-teaching job).

Research findings

Researchers found that there has been an increase in the prevalence of long-lasting mental health problems reported by teachers, particularly over the last decade. This has been accompanied by a recent rise in the percentage of education professionals who are taking prescribed antidepressant medication.

At the same time, a range of widely used and validated instruments designed to measure personal wellbeing and depressive symptoms has remained broadly stable for teachers over the last 30 years. Moreover, the recent increase in mental health issues reported (and being treated) among teachers was also observed for other professional groups.

In conclusion, although teachers are now more likely to report and treat mental health issues, there is little evidence to suggest that levels of wellbeing and mental health have declined - or that any trend is specific to those working in the education sector.

Findings included:

  • Teachers reporting lasting limiting illnesses in the Labour Force Survey since 1997 has gradually increased over a 20-year period, from around 15% in 1998 to around 25% in 2018. The pattern was very similar for primary and secondary teachers through to 2010.
  • There has been little change in the proportion of teachers with long-term health problems in the recent past; the figure has remained around 25% between 2010 and 2018.
  • The upsurge in serious mental health problems reported by teachers since 2010 was also observed for accountants, nurses, and human resource workers (as well as professional workers more generally). This suggests that the driver of this change is unlikely to be occupationally specific. An increasing willingness to diagnose and disclose mental health problems – or a wider societal problem – seems a more likely cause, rather than changes to teachers’ specific working conditions.
  • Between 2006 and 2015 around 2-3% of teachers in England reported that their job had caused them to have a problem with depression, anxiety, or stress. There was an increase in the figure to around 4% in 2016 and 2017, however this small change should not be overinterpreted – particularly given the limited sample size.

Research impact

This paper presents the first empirical evidence on the wellbeing and mental health of teachers in England over time. The most pressing issue is for the Department for Education to commit to monitoring the mental health and wellbeing of teachers – similar to its commitment to monitoring teachers’ workloads over time. This could be achieved by both enhancing existing data collections and creating new links between education and health administrative records.

For the former, the Teacher Workload Survey could include additional questions designed to measure teachers’ mental health. This evidence could then be triangulated against other routinely collected secondary data sources (such as data gathered within the Annual Population Survey).

As for administrative records, data from England’s Teacher Workforce Census could be linked to Hospital Episode Statistics and/or primary care records, both of which contain information about medical treatments received for poor mental health. This would provide a more robust picture of the proportion of teachers who suffer from serious mental health issues. It could also generate more efficiently targeted resources to support those at greatest risk of suffering problems. Together, this would represent a step-change in the evidence available, providing critical and much needed insights for this important area of research.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said of the research: “In one sense, these findings are reassuring in that the levels of life-satisfaction, happiness and anxiety amongst teachers has remained broadly stable over the last twenty years.

“However, we also know that the pressures of workload, working hours and job satisfaction are contributing to a crisis in teacher retention, and those pressures still need to be addressed if we want to keep good teachers in our schools.

Research outputs

Publications and reports

Blogs, news posts, and videos

About the ONS Secure Research Service

The ONS Secure Reseach Service is an accredited trusted research environment, using the Five Safes Framework to provide secure access to de-identified, unpublished data. If you use ONS Secure Research Service data and would like to discuss writing a future case study with us, please ensure you have reported your outputs here: Outputs Reporting Form and get in touch: IDS.impact@ons.gov.uk.

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