The pandemic changed a lot about our lives. For better or worse, we spent more time with our families, we picked up new hobbies and caught up on television and movies. We also spent a lot more time talking about an often overlooked or unspoken subject: our mental health. Let’s carry that forward – it’s a positive change.
Mental health encompasses a range of experiences from mental illness to mental wellness. Mental illness is an abnormal and typically continual negative state driven by issues in the brain. Wellness, on the other hand, is the condition in which you have resiliency skills, an ability to manage how you feel, and experiences of both positive and negative feelings on a regular basis.
I have been surrounded by educators for much of my life. My mother is a teacher. I hold a Master’s in Education and my principal’s certificates, and I started my career in the public education system. I led a national education charity and had the privilege of working with educators and education leaders daily. The environment is familiar to me – however, I acknowledge much has changed.
Our work at Mental Health Research Canada is to understand how Canadians are experiencing the vast range of mental health. We have completed multiple studies on mental health indicators and we have dug into our national data to explore various population and employee groups, such as educators.
What do we know from our research? Before the pandemic, K–12 educators’ self-reported day-to-day mental health indicators looked average compared to other sectors, including the level of diagnosis of some of the most common mental illnesses – anxiety and depression. Self-rated levels of anxiety were slightly below average and depression indicators were well below average. This is not particularly surprising, since despite the challenges the job may present, it seems reasonable to assume most people who select teaching as a profession would be aware of the nature of the work and only choose this profession if they feel they are suited to it and able to overcome these challenges on a regular basis. Also, teachers came into the pandemic with an additional layer of mental health protection – they are, on the whole, engaged in and proud of their work.
However, the pandemic was very difficult for K–12 educators. This profession showed the second-highest increase in levels of average anxiety – after nurses – with scores peaking in August each year and as new variants emerged. At some points, one in three teachers were self-reporting high levels of anxiety. Given all that we went through, this is likely not surprising to anyone. Our data showed it was especially hard for educators with dual roles as a caregiver or parent; they were supporting their family members while also managing new roles as virtual teachers. In places where teachers went back to in-person school, they also had increased concerns about catching and spreading COVID-19 to family members.
This situation often manifested as burnout. In the depths of the pandemic, 38 percent of educators self-reported burnout. This was slightly above the average of 35 percent for employed Canadians. We had expected higher burnout rates, but as this typically correlates with longer-term anxiety or depression indicators, it is possible that the protective factors and relative strengths going into the pandemic helped keep this lower than the incredibly high burnout rates seen among nurses and mental-health care workers.
In the post-pandemic recovery period, our most recent study on workplace mental health indicators showed some interesting new data. During the pandemic and in the recovery phase, health-care workers reported some of the highest rates of burnout. While we now see some improvement on levels of burnout among the health-care sector, we have not seen the same in the education sector. The two sectors are now experiencing the same levels of burnout. We were curious about what was happening in these high-burnout sectors, so we began conducting interviews with educators. These respondents were recruited from our large data collection and had self-reported some degree of mental distress during the pandemic or more recently.
As one would expect, we received a number of explanations, but they broadly fit into a few categories. During the pandemic, stress was driven by:
- The challenges of delivering school virtually with little to no guidance and support
- Being unable to answer questions from anxious parents
- Watching kids struggle and feeling unable to properly support them.
Once school returned to in-person learning, stress was driven by:
- More behavioural challenges from students
- No additional supports for students who had fallen behind, coupled with expectations from parents that the school would support educational recovery
- Lingering concerns about COVID-19 and students coming to school sick.
Where to go from here?
Improving these indicators is a collective responsibility. Parents and students have a role to play in understanding that teachers are usually doing the best they can with the resources they have. Leadership in schools, school boards, and unions can implement stronger policies to support mental health. Governments can better fund the system to address the academic and social gaps that arose for students during the pandemic, without losing sight of the need for additional mental health supports for staff. As well, educators have a responsibility to increase their understanding of mental health, including when and how to get help.
The basic tenets of workplace mental health generally are the following four pillars:
- The first pillar is effective policy and programs driven by the highest decision-makers. Do you have programs in place to engage employees on mental health? Are there metrics in place? Do the policies move beyond information to consider behaviour change? Have the unions, the school boards, and education ministries made this a priority? Have they considered staff wellbeing across all their policies?
- The second is supportive middle management. The greatest policies can be undermined by poor or poorly planned execution. Less-than-ideal leadership styles and micro-aggressions can undermine improvements in mental health. In the education context, this is primarily a role for principals. How can we best support them to learn about mental health, identify red flags, ensure programs are delivered effectively, and build a supportive environment for all staff and students? All levels of management have to support mental health, but it is especially important at the management implementation level.
- The third pillar is understanding and mitigating psychological harms or traumas. Some workplaces have inherently more risk for psychological harms (e.g. bullying, micro-aggressions and discrimination) – most would certainly consider teachers and schools as one such workplace. Schools likely have policies around major traumas that teachers might experience, but do we build metrics that indicate how they are working? When does a policy kick in? For example, is verbal abuse from a parent a trauma by all definitions? Workplaces where trauma is inherent have a responsibility for specific policies over and above typical workplace mental health policies to ensure the psychological safety of employees.
- The fourth pillar is individual responsibility. We are humans and we have social interactions and pressures in our lives. No one is immune from bringing pre-existing challenges into the workplace, or workplace challenges into the home. It might surprise you to know that custodial staff who hold a critically important role in the school community are among the highest in anxiety diagnoses. Even within the various roles in schools, every person will respond differently as we all have different capacities. Demonstrating empathy, flexibility, and adaptability to those who need extra support is not only important, but also a collective responsibility of everyone in the workplace. We must strive toward stigma-free workplaces. Individuals also have a responsibility to learn more about and be in tune with their own mental health, and to understand and respect the mental wellbeing of others.
Where do we see the greatest opportunities for improvement in preventative mental health for educators?
We have the great fortune to collect a huge national sample of data from employed Canadians as part of the Guarding Minds evaluation. This evaluation monitors 13 multi-faceted factors that create and support psychologically safe workplaces. The factors are Balance, Civility and Respect, Clear Leadership and Expectations, Engagement, Growth and Development, Involvement and Influence, Organizational Culture, Protection of Physical Safety, Psychological and Social Support, Psychological Competencies and Demands, Psychological Protection, Recognition and Reward, and Workload Management. In self-reporting, educators score below average on all these factors, with the exception of Engagement and Psychological Protection. There are many areas that deserve attention.
On the positive, educators score well (average) on Engagement because they often contribute extra time voluntarily and feel like they belong to a community. They score well in Psychological Protection because they are part of and invested in that community, and they have comparatively low rates of workplace discrimination, bullying, and harassment.
However, there are enormous challenges that educators are facing. Educators scored significantly below the average (10 percent below) in Balance, Clear Leadership and Expectations, Involvement and Influence, Organizational Culture, Protection of Physical Safety, Psychological and Social Support, and Recognition and Reward.
Reviewing and summarizing the biggest gaps between the average employed Canadian and educators reveals:
- Work-home life balance issues
- Difficult situations that are often unresolved
- Not being able to engage with leadership in meaningful ways resulting in low trust, as demonstrated by multiple different indicators
- Not being provided with the right tools or resources to keep the environment safe and healthy
- Not having recognition for achievement and/or good performance.
The inherent challenge, of course, is that change and cultural shifts are difficult to achieve in big institutional systems. Many of these struggles seem baked into the structure of public education in Canada – governments, school boards, and collective bargaining.
But we can make progress.
Strive for individual balance. This can be the archenemy of high engagement. Teachers care deeply about students and don’t want to let them down. This often results in conflicting priorities with personal time. I would encourage educators to define their personal boundaries of time, as difficult as that is, to support better life balance and strive for discipline to adhere to the boundaries they set for themselves. This is not easy to do. But educators have to take responsibility for setting their own personal limits. There is a necessary tension between commitment and life balance.
While recognition and achievement can be challenging in a structured pay environment, multiple studies have shown that many people are highly motivated beyond financial incentives. School environments can be set up to celebrate achievements. We do it well with students. Can students share impact stories of how a teacher affected their life? Can we better celebrate progress in working with students who were struggling? Can unions celebrate and promote great teaching and the significant contribution of educators to society? Can system leaders recognize school-wide improvements on key broad initiatives? This is the responsibility of the principal of each school, and superintendents overseeing families of schools. Sometimes, it is as simple as saying thank you and appreciating someone you know is working very hard, doing their best, and bringing their best self to work every day.
Really, the above examples apply to most workplaces. If we can come to work, do our best, support and appreciate each other, set our work-life balance priorities without apology or guilt, stamp out stigma and show empathy for one another without judgment, our work environments would all be better places.
Read more about the work of Mental Health Research Canada, including reports and data on the mental health of Canadians, on our website at www.mhrc.ca.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023