When it comes to teachers, prevention will always trump cure.

The last few years have been tough on teachers.

Now, let’s be clear. Teaching remains a tremendously rewarding career, and as a teacher friend of mine is often want to remind me, it’s not working as a roofer in February. Challenging environments are certainly not the exclusive purview of those who work in our schools. However, I stand by my claim. Over the past few years, our unique definition of the word hard in “hard work” has, well, gotten harder.

Certainly media coverage of violence in schools has lent credence to that claim.  As well,  just last year, a group called “The Institute for Work and Health” (IWH) out of Toronto revealed “A pronounced increase in workplace violence injury rates” in the education sector. When they broke this increase down based on gender, there was further cause for concern.  According to the study, women in the education field suffer violence related lost-time injuries at a rate that is eight times that of men and women in other sectors.

As disturbing as these numbers may be, the data is somewhat unreliable in that it remains incomplete. In order to gather an accurate picture of the extent of this problem, researchers often rely on “self-reporting”. In some instances, people may be unwilling to come forward. Whether through fear of some sort of reprisal or perhaps being discouraged from reporting by a supervisor, the problem may be much more wide spread than these number suggest.

Inaccurate as they may be, these numbers are at least digestible. When a teacher goes off work due to a violent incident at school, there is usually a paper trail. What is often missing, however, is the unseen toll. In a recent poll by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, over half of the teacher’s surveyed had experienced mental stress from either being a victim of or witnessing violence at school.

“Mental stress” is a relatively new concept in the field of mental health, but it does tie nicely into another relatively new concept. A few years ago, the Mental Health Commission of Canada developed something called The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The standard sets voluntary guidelines for employers to ensure that employees are protected from a psychological injury at work. By using a series of tools and resources provided by the Canadian Center of Occupational Health and Safety, (CCOHS) employers can reduce the amount of stress and “emotional fatigue” experienced by their employees.

This may all seem a tad “touchy-feely” for some folks, but the business case for taking care of the psychological as well as the physical wellness of employees is backed by some pretty sound research. According to the CCOHS, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are rapidly becoming the main reason why employees go off work for disability claims. This absenteeism represents a significant cost for the employer not just in the way of premiums, but in the cost of replacement workers as well. What might be even more alarming to the “corporates” among us is the untold dollar value of a condition known as presenteeism. This happens when employees show up for work but because of unaddressed “mental stress” are incapable of operating at full capacity. As productivity drops, so too does the corporate bottom line.

This would be alarming enough if we were only talking grapple grommets and widget factories, but the hazards of presenteeism in the education system could be much more dire. When we consider how much we now focus on student mental health, one has to wonder about the potential impact on students of teacher mental wellness. If a teacher, often the first line of defense for our kids, has their capacity for such things as empathy taxed by mental stress and compassion fatigue, there is a real danger they may miss key signs of an impending student crises.

Traditionally, the overall mental wellness of educators has been widely ignored by researchers, but thankfully, that is changing. One particular point of promise emanates from the EdCan Network out of Toronto. They have recently launched a national campaign called “Well at Work” that specifically focuses on wellness for education workers. They have begun by offering free webinars to stake holders on everything from how to make wellness initiatives more palatable to employers to the connection between teacher wellness and student achievement.

As a Union leader, you do not have to convince me that looking after the wellness of teachers should be fairly high on a school’s to do list. After all, there is a reason why airlines advise that you put your own oxygen mask on first. I am also keenly aware that my perception of this issue is very much coloured by my position. My phone seldom rings when teachers are doing well, and I am here to tell you, my phone is also seldom quiet for very long.

What has me absolutely befuddled, however, is the lengths to which people must go to convince governing bodies that focusing on wellness in the workplace has merit. I find this particularly maddening in education where we are currently experiencing a fairly sizable human resources issue, bordering on a crisis. The shortage of education workers, both nationally and internationally is well documented, as is the research pointing to stress as a major contributing factor to that reality. The Nova Scotia government, to its credit, has set up an Office of Workplace Mental Health, which lists following the Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace as its first priority. Somewhat unfortunately, those efforts have not yet translated into actions in our schools.

Yes, working in education is a tougher gig today than it was ten years ago. And, yes, we are suffering from an increasing shortage of individuals willing to do the job. What remains missing from the conversation, however, is a viable plan to remedy this reality.

If we want to avoid a shortage of teachers analogous to our current shortage of doctors, we need to create conditions that will not only make people want to come to work in our schools, but also allow them to stay.

Ignoring the psychological impact of the daily grind on our front line workers will do little to advance that cause.


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Filed under Education Policy, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education, teacher mental health, Teacher shortage

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