Stressed teachers chalk up thousands of sick days

TEACHERS are suffering more stress than ever before, leading education figures have warned, as it emerged that thousands of days have been lost to long-term sickness over the past two years.

Across the Capital, 7722 days were lost to long-term absence – eight weeks or longer – during the first ten months of last year, 2624 of which were a result of stress and depression.

Figures from across the rest of the Lothians revealed a similar picture.

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Union leaders said they were being forced to provide counselling services to teachers in situations where councils had failed to do so – something they branded “simply shameful”.

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “We have a worrying large number of members reporting work-related stress and going on long-term absence.

“The problem is an increasing one, the major cause of which seems to be the continuing difficulty of managing behaviour and the feeling of powerlessness in situations where behaviour is so bad that members feel they simply cannot carry on.

“Part of the problem is the increasing perception that bad behaviour needs to be managed rather than not tolerated.

“Teachers are in a situation where they have to perform inspirationally up to five lessons a day. That is the expectation. Such a demand, in the face of many reluctant learners, is hugely difficult.”

In East Lothian, 1764 days were lost in primary schools to long-term sickness in 2010-11 as a result of stress/depression, exhaustion, tiredness and bereavement – up from 1125 the previous year.

Teachers were off on long-term sick leave for a total of 388 days in East Lothian secondary schools for similar reasons in 2010-11, compared with 324 in 2009-10.

Meanwhile, in West Lothian, 3995 stress-related days were lost between the start of 2011 and the end of October 2012, with 4407 days lost between January 2009 and December 2010.

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In Midlothian, the number of long-term stress/depression absences among teachers in primaries, secondaries and nurseries has increased, with 419 days lost in 2010-11 compared with 634 days in 2011-12. A total of 324 days were lost between April and December last year.

The number of days lost due to stress, depression, mental health and fatigue syndromes in the Capital has dropped from 4488 to 2624 over the last year.

Councillor Melanie Main, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens, said funding cuts, inadequate support for the new curriculum and school buildings unfit for purpose all threatened to reverse the recent decline in long-term stress-related absence in the Capital.

She said: “Teaching is a stressful job and, if staff are not well, it is simply not right for them to continue toiling at the chalkface. The council needs to be serious about stress and supporting staff who need to take time off, and serious about the causes of stress.”

A city council spokeswoman said: “The mental and physical wellbeing of our teachers is extremely important and we take measures to ensure that staff receive the support they need.

“Positively, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in teacher sickness absence over the last three years and we want to ensure that this number continues to decrease.”

A spokeswoman for East Lothian Council – which classifies long-term absence as two weeks or more – said the local authority had a number of resources in place to assist employees experiencing health or life problems, while West Lothian Council – which classifies long-term absence as more than four weeks – said its sickness absence policy focused on early intervention, adding that the number of sick days in 2011-12 was down on previous years.

Midlothian Council underlined that it had the second lowest percentage of teacher absence in Scotland.

‘The modern classroom is an explosive mix’

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ONE secondary school teacher who recently returned to work following an extended period of maternity leave believes modern classrooms are extremely stressful environments.

The 38-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Walking into a classroom would be an eye-opening experience for most parents these days. I returned to work at what I would say is a reasonably good school at the start of this term. It was a different school to the one I’d been at previously and I was delighted to be back in work.

“Walking into my class on my first day back, I was hit by the noise. Our school, in common with others, is supposed to enforce a no mobile use policy, but I was greeted with the sound of text alerts going off, people’s phones ringing, some pupils checking their Twitter and Facebook settings.

“It immediately sets a stressful tone and one that isn’t conducive to study. Coupled with the fact teenage secondary-age pupils are certainly a lot more cheeky and cocksure of themselves these days, it can be an explosive mix.”

The married English literature teacher and mum-of-one, who earns around £33,000 a year, added: “In the short space of time I’ve been back, I’ve found it stressful to manage my workload and the expectations of the school. Because I’d been out of a teaching environment so long, I found it difficult to get back in.

“I was turned down for one job in favour of someone younger and cheaper who was just out of college. So when I got this job I was perhaps over-keen and determined to impress. It meant I found myself saying ‘yes’ to a lot of extracurricular work, and taking on extra responsibilities.

“I’ve found it exhausting. I’ve also had a run-in with a girl pupil who has been trying to undermine and bully me. That issue has been addressed now, thankfully. I’m not the sort of person who will need time off on the sick to recuperate, but I can see how easy it is to be overcome these days.”