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Primary teachers have “higher psychological distress’ than other professional groups

Posted on November 20th 2018

Primary school teachers experience higher levels of clinically significant distress than people in comparable professions, according to the first study to make the comparison over a sustained time period

The study, published online in the journal Public Health, was led by a team of researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School with support from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The research team analysed data from up to 90 primary school teachers in the South West of England who had taken part in the Supporting Teachers And childRen in Schools (STARS) trial. STARS is an ongoing evaluation of the Incredible Years® Teacher Classroom Management course. The teachers included in this study all taught at mainstream primary schools which were not under ‘special measures’ and had a substantive head teacher in post.

The study utilised the Everyday Feelings Questionnaire as a measure of psychological distress. Baseline data on participating primary school teachers were compared with a national population sample of professionals in comparable jobs (parents from the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey 2004 who were classified as having ‘professional or managerial occupations’) and to a clinical sample of patients attending a depression clinic.

The results found that, while primary school teachers experienced lower levels of psychological distress than those in the clinical sample, they experienced higher levels than those in other professional positions over a sustained 30-month period. The data suggest that between 19% and 29% of primary school teachers experienced clinically significant levels of distress at baseline and each of the three follow-up points (nine, 18 and 30 months after the start of the study).

The study also identified that levels of significant psychological distress were higher in older teachers.

Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Exeter Medical School, is a key member of the study team.

She commented: “High levels of stress in primary school teachers are well-recorded, with above average levels of burn-out, self-harm and suicide, yet this is the first study of its kind where findings are sustained over time. In our work, some teachers told us that the reason for this includes the constant and repeated reorganisations of teaching and the demands in primary school for ever-higher academic attainment. Other potential candidates include micromanagement, not being trusted to do the job and workload associated with planning and recording – but there is not a lot of hard evidence.”

She added: “We would be keen to extend this study beyond the South West, with larger primary school teacher cohorts. We feel that we owe it to the profession to explore this issue further – stressed and distressed teachers cannot be in a position to teach and manage children. In the meanwhile, we hope that teachers are encouraged to seek support where needed and are supported to manage stress.”

The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers from 2gether NHS Foundation Trust (Gloucester, UK), University of Oxford and King’s College London.

NIHR support came via the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (PenCLAHRC).

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