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'It's going round': Have your pupils caught it yet?

Steve Waters

Founder/Director Teach Well Alliance

There's a contagious illness which is spreading like wildfire in some of our classrooms. Pupils catch it from teachers and then pass it on to each other and back again to their teachers. It is not a virus and antibiotics don't work. It can cause aggression, irritability, lack of concentration, emotional exhaustion, inability to control emotions and lead to conflict with other sufferers. And very little is being done to stop it.

The illness? Stress.

Excessive workload, high levels of accountability for standards based on test results, and low levels of support have led to unprecedented levels of occupational stress and burnout. In the last four years in the UK, teachers were absent from the classroom for 1.3 million days for stress and mental health reasons. These figures, obtained by the Liberal Democrats, do not include 70 out of the 152 local authorities who did not provide data, nor do they account for teachers who chose not to report mental ill-health as the reason for their absence. The figures could, therefore, be close to double of those reported.

And it turns out that, just like a physical disease, stress can be passed from person to person.

A study 'Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students' (Oberle, E & Schonert-Reichl, K A. Social Science & Medicine 159: 2016 pp 30-37) was reported in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) Magazine (9th March, 2018). This study is the first of its kind to explore the connection between teachers' stress, the classroom environment and the physiological response of students. 406 students from 4th to 7th grade, drawn from 17 classrooms in an urban public school district in Vancouver, were tested for their levels of Cortisol at three points during the school day. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.

The students' teachers were assessed for their levels of stress using the Maslach Burnout Inventory, modified for teachers (Grayson & Alvarez, 2008; Maslach et al 1996; Maslach & Jackson 1981). The teachers were found to have high emotional exhaustion scores.

The researchers found that higher Cortisol levels could be significantly predicted from higher burnout levels in classroom teachers. In other words, in classrooms where teachers had higher levels of stress, the levels of the children's Cortisol were higher.

So students can 'catch' stress from their teachers. Not only that, but the relationship is cyclical. Stressed students tend to present more behavioural challenges for their teachers, which, in turn, raises the teachers' stress levels further...and so it goes on.

If this was a physical disease, Public Health England would be stepping in to find a solution and closing schools until it was found. But it isn't. So how do we stop this mental illness 'going round'?

We must intervene to reduce the stress, burnout and emotional exhaustion of our teachers. If we put teachers last, they will be unable to put their children first. Mentally unwell teachers will unknowingly pass on their stress to the pupils who in turn will pass it back to their teachers. Stressful classrooms are not good learning environments, nor places of personal and social wellbeing.

In February 2018, the Care Quality Commission exhorted Ofsted to include a judgement on the effectiveness of teachers in taking care of the mental health of their pupils. If inspections include how well teachers look after the mental wellbeing of their pupils without a recognition of the unacceptable levels of mental ill-health teachers themselves experience, my fear is that Ofsted will simply increase their stress levels further. And this contagious disease will become even easier to catch...and even more damaging in its impact.

Steve Waters is the founder and CEO of the Teach Well Alliance ( which works in partnership with schools to reduce unnecessary workload, reduce stress and promote staff mental health. He can be contacted at or by phone on 07504 635 431.

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