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School Mental Health Is Not Just for Students: Why Teacher and School Staff Wellness Matters

Workplace Stress - Nancy Lever, Erin Mathis, and Ashley Mayworm

The term “school mental health” is typically used to discuss the mental health and wellness

of students. However, school mental health also includes promoting the well-being of

school-based educators, administrators, and mental health workers. Although the workplace wellness literature predominantly focuses on health-related programs to support well-being in more traditional business settings, it offers foundational knowledge for the emerging school staff wellness field. Experiencing significant levels of stress in the workplace is common not only in schools, but in a wide array of work settings. According to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey, 60% of individuals residing in the United States in 2014 reported that work was a top source of stress in their lives (APA, 2015).

Further, the APA’s Center for Organization Excellence found that approximately 33% of Americans reported having chronic work stress (APA, 2013). This is a concerning statistic, because stress-related disorders are costly for employers (e.g., through absenteeism and lost productivity; DHHS, 1999) and are associated with numerous negative mental and physical health outcomes for workers (APA, 2015). Although all stress cannot be eliminated in the workplace, research has documented some best practices and strategies that can help reduce the extent and impact of stress.

Eighty-nine percent said they had been enthusiastic about teaching when they started the profession, but only 15% reported being enthusiastic at the time they completed the survey.

Work-Related Stress for Educators

Individuals working in school settings are particularly vulnerable to work-related stress. Data from the 2013 Gallup-Health-ways Well-Being Index found that 46% of teachers in K-12 settings report high levels of daily stress during the school year. This level of stress is similar to that of nurses (46%) and physicians (45%) and is the highest (along with nurses) among the 14 professional categories included in the study (Gallup, 2014). Furthermore, the American Federation of Teachers (2015) found that 78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. The stress that educators experience affects their enthusiasm about the profession and longevity in the field. For example, a survey of 30,000 teachers revealed that 89% said they had been enthusiastic about teaching when they started the profession, but only 15% reported being enthusiastic at the time they completed the survey. The stress of the education field is further illustrated in the high rates of teacher turnover; 10% of teachers leave after one year, and 17% of teachers leave within five years (Gray & Taie, 2015). Turnover rates are much higher in urban districts, where up to 70% of teachers leave within the first year (Gray & Taie, 2015). This issue is not limited just to new teachers; many experienced teachers leave the profession because they feel unable to deal with the myriad challenges of modern teaching (Byrne, 1998; Taylor et al., 2005).

There are a multitude of factors contributing to the high rates of stress and burnout in the education field. Studies suggest that some of the most common sources of teacher stress include:

  • High-stakes testing;

  • Large class sizes;

  • Student behavioral challenges;

  • Inadequate resources;

  • Poor physical space;

  • Bureaucracy;

  • Workload;

  • Paperwork;

  • High responsibility for others;

  • Perceived inadequate recognition or advancement; and

  • The gap between preservice training expectations and actual work experiences (Dworkin, 2001; Fisher, 2011; Kokkinos, 2007; Travers & Cooper, 1996).

Additionally, lack of autonomy is a significant contributor to teacher burnout and stress; teachers who do not feel that they have autonomy over their classroom or that they have a collective influence over school policy are more likely to experience job dissatisfaction (Ingersoll, 1996, 2001). Research from the 2012 Gallup Daily Tracking Poll (Gallup, 2014) showed that when compared to 12 different occupational groups, teachers are the least likely to state that they agree with the statement: “At work, my opinions seem to count.”

Educators and other school-based staff can experience the stress of compassion fatigue and/or vicarious traumatization (also known as secondary traumatic stress; Hydon et al., 2015), which is defined as “the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other—the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1993, as cited in Figley, 1995, p. 7). Compassion fatigue can be the result of experiencing one traumatic case, or a cumulative impact over time (Hydon et al., 2015). As explained by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN, 2011, pp. 2–3): “Any professional who works directly with traumatized children … is at risk of secondary traumatic stress.” Although compassion fatigue has traditionally been discussed as being a secondary effect for individuals providing clinical services to traumatized clients, it also has an impact on teachers and other school staff who work closely with youth who have experienced adverse experiences. The impact of compassion fatigue may be particularly acute for teachers working in poor, underresourced urban and rural communities, where students may have been exposed to community and family violence and traumatic experiences.

Teachers and other school staff who experience exhaustion and burnout related to their work are likely to have a number of negative physical and psychological symptoms and consequences, including:

  • Emotional numbing;

  • Feeling “shut down”;

  • Loss of enjoyment;

  • Lack of energy;

  • A sense of cynicism or pessimism;

  • Increased illness or fatigue;

  • Aches and pains;

  • Increased absenteeism and “sick days”;

  • Greater problems with boundaries; and

  • Difficulty making decisions or making poor decisions (Saakvitne et al., 2000).

Educator and school staff stress and burnout affects not only the adult professionals but also the students with whom these professionals interact. For example, teacher burnout is predictive of student academic outcomes, including being correlated with lower levels of student effective learning and lower motivation (Zhang & Sapp, 2008). Additionally, teacher burnout appears to affect the stress levels of the students they teach; a recent study found that teacher burnout level explained more than half of the variability in students’ levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) when evaluated in the morning (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016).

Despite the strong evidence for the existence of work-related stress, only 36% of respondents from all fields to the APA (2015)Stress in America survey stated that their employers provide the resources they need to effectively manage their work-related stress. The numbers are even weaker in the education field, with only 25.5% of schools offering stress management education to staff (DHHS, 2015). Although comprehensive programs are recommended to address staff wellness, many schools and school systems have limited programs, and school staff may have exposure only to professional development and basic resources. Thus, although school employees throughout the United States are clearly affected by work-related stress, they often lack the programs, resources, and tools needed to support their management of that stress and the promotion of overall wellness. This article demonstrates the value of school staff wellness and highlights unique aspects of the job that should be taken into consideration when addressing the well-being of school-based staff. It shares key findings from the literature and discusses how to best measure and implement effective staff wellness programs in schools. Finally, it summarizes best practices in the school staff wellness field and highlights exemplary programs.

Although school employees throughout the United States are clearly affected by work-related stress, they often lack the programs, resources, and tools needed to support their management of that stress and the promotion of overall wellness.

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