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February 11, 2021

Mental health in the education sector

We spoke with Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice President, Research and Total Wellbeing, Morneau Shepell, to get her perspective on mental health issues that are arising in the education sector and what education leaders could be thinking about to support teachers and staff  during these unprecedented times.


In what ways does COVID-19 pose unique challenges to mental health in general?

COVID-19 has knocked everyone off balance. We’ve all undergone massive change and these layers of change have really built up and are weighing on all of us. We also have to deal with uncertainty in the near term (how we are going to manage for the next two weeks?) and in the long term (how long will this last? what will the future look like?).
 
Using Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index, we’ve seen a measurable decline in mental health across the entire population. It started as soon as the pandemic hit and it hasn’t improved over time because these changes are ongoing and we are all continuing to be drained emotionally. Everybody’s risk level is higher right now.
[The education sector] has had to deal with heightened change and uncertainty and, what’s worse, it’s been highly visible and emotional. Like healthcare workers, educators have “care and control” responsibilities, in this case for children, which heightens their risk and uncertainty.
 

What about for educators? What has been unique about this experience for teachers and people working within the sector?

From an educator’s point of view, they’ve been working in a sector that has had to deal with heightened change and uncertainty and, what’s worse, it’s been highly visible and emotional. Like healthcare workers, educators have “care and control” responsibilities, in this case for children, which heightens their risk and uncertainty. We’ve seen that people with any kind of care/control responsibility for others have more compromised mental health during the pandemic.
 
People ask you questions and you don’t know the answers, people around you are in a highly vulnerable situation, and you’re at the epicentre of it. The closer you are to the centre – teachers, nurses and doctors, for example – the higher the risk. Even principals and administrators, who are more frontline now than they ever have been, are at greater risk.
 
At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw that people in healthcare didn’t experience as much of a drop in their mental health as we expected. We believe that is because they were buffered by social support. Teachers, however, didn’t receive that same level of support and their mental health dropped quite a bit. Now, nearly a year later, we’re seeing less support overall for all frontline workers.  
 
Even before the pandemic, being a teacher wasn’t that easy. You are the subject of many masters: parents, your principal, the board, your students. There are many competing objectives and priorities. It’s hard enough to be in that role in the first place, and it’s been made many times harder now.
Even before the pandemic, being a teacher wasn’t that easy. You are the subject of many masters: parents, your principal, the board, your students. There are many competing objectives and priorities. It’s hard enough to be in that role in the first place, and it’s been made many times harder now.
 

Are there any strategies for self-care that you think are particularly important for educators to know about or practice?

The pandemic took away a lot of elements of our lives that we took for granted. We’ve lost access to different scenery in our day-to-day lives, particular means of getting social support, and many of our rituals and structures.
 
When you get down to the brass tacks, everyone needs a sense of accomplishment each day. And that’s been even more challenging with the blurring of what constitutes a “work day” now, especially for teachers. It’s important to create a structure where you can say: “I’ve accomplished xyz in this time.”

With a lot of teachers teaching online now, we need to have some physical activity to allow our brain to get refreshed. We need to have some fun, and enjoy some laughter in our days, even if it’s just from a silly video or TV show. We need to have some kind of social contact that helps us feel supported and that we belong. We would have gotten all of these experiences during an average workday, but during the pandemic we need to be more intentional about them.
 
It’s also important to recognize that, because everyone is at higher risk for mental health, we need to check in on ourselves and our thinking. Are we catastrophizing risk? Do we have short-term goals for ourselves? Are we taking control of what is important to us? Are we setting goals we can look forward to?
 
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you have to reach out to somebody else. You can’t do it alone. Whether it’s a friend, a professional, or even just a one-time coaching session – reach out for help.
What I would love to see is that we ... take a look at what the role of teaching is, what the mental health risks are, what support is necessary, and take this as an opportunity to strengthen mental health and wellness in the sector overall.

In terms of Morneau Shepell’s educational clients, are you seeing people recognize any opportunities to better support educators’ mental health and wellness at a broader level?

We’ve seen some school boards ask us to help them understand mental health issues within their districts, which is amazing. I mentioned the tool we use, Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index. We share the results publicly and Morneau Shepell has worked with organizations to benchmark how their  population is doing relative to the working population overall. It’s a diagnostic tool that can help with problem solving, highlight strengths and vulnerabilities, and can even be customized to explore certain trigger points. It can help organizations really understand what can make a positive difference and what can make things worse for their teams.
 
It’s not yet been used widely in the education sector but we’ve had very good engagement with specific school boards so far.
 
What I would love to see is that we move beyond thinking about what we need to do to get educators through this short period of time, but rather take a look at what the role of teaching is, what the mental health risks are, what support is necessary, and take this as an opportunity to strengthen mental health and wellness in the sector overall.

What do you see as the mid to longer term consequences of the pandemic and how it will change workplaces? 

When the pandemic first hit, people weren’t taking care of themselves. They were deferring both mental and physical health support. They weren’t going to counselling as they normally would have, it was just crisis-based. Some people weren’t refilling medications. So, we were seeing people in very bad places who were at their breaking point.
 
In recent months, we’ve seen an upswing in mental health care and support, but those are also early indicators of disability issues. Burnout rates tripled in 2020 compared to 2019, for example.
 
So, we are going to see long-term health and disability issues. We are also seeing capacity issues as people exit by disability or by leaving their professions. Across the board, certainly in the education sector, people are thinking about leaving their careers at levels we’ve never seen before.
 
We’ve also found that society has become more “judging” than before. Organizations who are doing the right things for their workers are being rewarded for it, but those who aren’t are being severely punished in the public sphere.
 
Some organizations have done some really dumb things. A university in Florida made a policy, for example, that as of a given date they no longer wanted to see kids in the background on video calls. They said, we need to get back to business so if you must work from home put your business clothes on and send your kids out of the room. If you can’t, it’ll be a performance issue. That got on social media and people vilified them. 
I think there is hope in the kinds of things organizations are doing to take care of people’s emotional needs. ...What has a really big impact is when organizations validate what people are going through. Name the fact that this is mentally exhausting for all of us so people don’t feel alone, unsupported or carry a sense of stigma.
How brands are treating their people is really making a difference in terms of how people feel about that brand. We have seen it with the social justice movement and anti-racism, but it’s also happening in terms of health/safety and mental health support for individuals.
 
And in this there might be a silver lining, in that it points out and provides incentive for organizations to do better on these fronts.

That’s a nice segue: Where do you see signs of hope and resilience? What words of support, guidance or encouragement would you want to offer educators and workplaces more broadly?

I think there is hope in the kinds of things an increasing number of organizations are doing to take care of people’s emotional needs, see people as whole human beings even when in the workplace. We have found that flexibility is what people value most.
 
Mental health is a collective responsibility. We can’t always keep the focus on the individual saying, “you are not feeling well, so you should do this.” We know that your work environment and how your workplace supports you is a huge indicator for mental health.
 
What has a really big impact is when organizations validate what people are going through. Have listening sessions and have people participate in problem-solving together. Name the fact that this is mentally exhausting for all of us so people don’t feel alone, unsupported or carry a sense of stigma. This kind of approach has shown itself to have a very positive impact on employees. It really resonates with employees, supporting their engagement and their mental health.
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