Achieve a good work-life balance and stay well

An image showing an expressionless man holding a range of emojis

Source: Cartoon © Getty Images/Emojis © Shutterstock

Time to talk, Time to change, Every mind matters, Mental health awareness week – these initiatives are all proof that voicing concerns about mental health is more acceptable now. And that’s a good thing – not just because destigmatising mental ill health benefits those who are suffering (and those who aren’t) – but also because reports of mental health issues are rising. In fact, one in 20 teachers report a long-lasting mental health problem. That means three or four teachers in your school currently have a mental health issue. It might be you. 

Facts and figures

The Teacher wellbeing index 2019, based on responses from around 3000 educators and teachers (at all career stages), reveals worrying statistics. For example, 72% of respondents described themselves as stressed. In fact, 50% of educators reported being off work for over a month with mental health issues in the last academic year, and 34% reported suffering a mental health issue in the past month.

More worryingly, 49% felt compelled to work despite feeling unwell and 60% said they would not feel happy disclosing their mental health issue at work.

Workload, which is closely related to teacher well-being, is cited as the main issue of retaining teachers in a 2019 report from UCL. The Teacher wellbeing index reports that 71% of education professionals cite workload as the main reason for considering leaving their jobs.

Teacher autonomy is also strongly associated with improved job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching. The National Foundation for Education Research’s Teacher autonomy publication reports that teachers are 16 percentage points less likely than similar professionals to say that they have ‘a lot’ of influence over how they do their job, and 38 % of teachers say they have ‘a little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals.

2019 report from Ofsted on teacher well-being found that one of the key factors damaging teachers’ mental health was poor work-life balance, mainly due to high workloads. Furthermore, a Mental Health Foundation survey found that working long hours was a major contributing factor in making employees feel depressed, anxious and irritable. So, it’s clear that work-life balance is a critical issue for many teachers across the country – but how can we tackle it?

Aim to be a zero

Sometimes it just takes reading a chapter in a book to change your world view. This happened to me when I read Chris Hadfield’s An astronaut’s guide to life on Earth, chapter 9: ‘Aim to be a zero’. Although Chris is talking about working with NASA, a lot of what he says can be applied to teachers in maintaining a work-life balance too.

Imagine an analogue ammeter that has zero in the middle and then minus or plus each side. The main issue is that everybody wants to be a ‘+1’. As teachers we want the best for our students, so of course we put in as much as we can. However, this can often be more than we are able to manage and over time this is not sustainable. To address this issue, we should all aim to be a ‘0’.

A zero teacher recognises they are part of a team, brings strengths, but is aware of weaknesses. They do everything required without causing problems for others. They thrive on positive stress and have a balanced work life and home life. They plan reasonable next steps in career development. So, everyone benefits: the teacher, their students, their family, their team, their school. And they will become extraordinary in time.

Here are some practical checks to help you remain at zero:

  • Arrive at a reasonable time, leave at a reasonable time; have boundaries.
  • Take a lunch break, even if it’s 20 minutes.
  • Plan time to rest and play each week, not just holidays.
  • Have space to support others, and draw on others to support you.
  • Reflect on your work time efficiency, make changes.
  • Use others to support you when you need it; you are part of a team.

Are you working at zero? What do you need to change to aim to be a zero? 

Other helpful strategies

We have to be proactive in maintaining being a zero. To do this, you need to build in ways to maintain and monitor your work and life balance:

  • Make sure you look after yourself.
  • Make a default plan so that you know what ‘zero looks like’.
  • Regularly audit your work-life balance. Identify things you want to keep the same, things you will do less of and things you will do more of.
  • If things get too much, talk to someone.
  • Work with a colleague or group of colleagues to help each other aim to be a zero.

For more ideas, take a look at A zero teacher is a hero teacher and @hero_zerois on Twitter.

If teaching science is losing its spark, visit the ASE’s Science Teacher SOS or consult our list of available support.

Maintaining good mental heath