UK teachers popping pills as workload grinds them down, union told

Teachers are “popping pills” and are on long-term sick leave, ground down by a culture of non-stop school emails and WhatsApp messages that “ding and ping” day and night, a conference has been told.

Delegate after delegate took to the platform at the annual conference of the NASUWT teachers’ union in Birmingham to condemn the increase in workload and describe the devastating impact on health and wellbeing.

Meanwhile, teachers who are almost at the end of their tether are being offered finger painting, “knit and natter” and mindfulness sessions as schools do their best to support struggling staff, the conference heard.

Owain Morgan-Lee, a delegate from Flintshire, told members: “We know which colleagues are off long-term sick because they’re popping pills to try to cheer themselves up because the job has ground them down to the point where their health is in a serious, serious, condition. It’s grinding down our morale, grinding down the good teachers of the UK.”

Morgan-Lee said his school had tried to help by holding a wellbeing session for teachers on a training day. He was offered finger-painting in the art department, a round of gold on the school field, and “knit and natter” in the textiles class, but decided on mindfulness.

“Lying on the sweaty, cold, hall floor, thinking about what noise my knees were making, how my toes felt, and what that grape tasted like and how it felt in my mouth,” he said. “I wondered how many more seconds or minutes I’d have to do that for, before the stress, the anxiety, the fear of going back into the classroom and logging on to my school emails, how many more minutes I’d have to do that for before it all ebbed away and I reached nirvana.”

Morgan-Lee said none of this would ease the workload crisis. “What we need colleagues is real, tangible change. We don’t need sticking plasters. We need real tangible change to workload and we need it now.”

Damien McNulty, from the union’s national executive, warned workload was driving teachers out of the profession. “We’ve got a 24/7 culture where telephones, tablets and smartphones are turned on,” and when school leaders cannot get a response to emails out of working hours they set up WhatsApp groups that “ding and ping all evening when you’re trying to get some rest and relaxation”.

He said: “This is just not on. Enough is enough. It’s time for a limit. No more will we put up with excessive workload.”

NASUWT members voted unanimously in favour of a campaign to have limits set on their working hours and called on the union to campaign to promote teachers’ rights to a work-life balance.

According to an NASUWT survey of 4,000 UK members, nine out of 10 (91%) have seen an increase in workload in the last year – 61% said it had increased significantly – with full-time teachers working 57 hours a week in a typical midterm week. Teachers who took part in the poll said they had spent more time on pastoral care, admin, data and assessment in the last year, as well as teaching, remote learning and dealing with parents.

More than four out of five (84%) believe their job has adversely affected their mental health in the last year, with 52% citing workload as the key factor.

Dr Patrick Roach, the NASUWT general secretary, said: “No teacher should expect to be subject to levels of workload pressure that will make them ill or force them out of a job they love. Teachers deserve a better deal, which must include a contractual entitlement to a limit on their workload and working hours.”

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.