Exclusive: 50,000 teaching days lost each year in Wales due to stress-related illness

New figures show the equivalent of 253 full-time teachers being lost in Wales each year due to stress-related illness. Photo: PA

A leading teaching union has warned that workload pressures faced by teachers in Wales are unsustainable, as ITV News exclusively reveals that they miss almost 50,000 days of school due to stress-related illness each year.

The National Union of Teachers and Plaid Cymru have now called on the Welsh Government to carry out a full workload survey, to understand the scale of the problem and try to remove unnecessary pressures.

They say there is a continuing pattern of Welsh teachers being "pushed to the point of mental exhaustion" due to the demands of workload and excess accountability.

Watch Tom Sheldrick's exclusive report:

New figures

The new figures were obtained by NUT Cymru via Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, and shared with ITV News.

They show that, between 2012 and 2014, on average, each year in Wales:

  • 49,524 days were missed by teachers due to stress-related illness
  • That equates to 253 full-time teachers being lost
  • And costs the Welsh education system £8.41m to bring in supply teachers

Out of Wales' 22 local authorities, 13 saw an increase in the number of teaching days lost in 2014 compared to the previous year.

One council reported a drop of over two-thirds in its statistics, which brought the overall figure for teaching days lost to 47,283 last year.

'You're on a constant treadmill trying to keep things going'

We spoke to a teacher working in a primary school in South Wales.

She has been in the profession for more than a decade, but says things have got much worse in the last few years, and she has had to take several weeks off due to stress-related illness.

She has experienced palpitations, chest pains and felt depression and anxiety, because she says, "sometimes I can't cope with the workload".

She describes a working week of around 60 hours, with a great deal of marking and lesson planning, as well as pressures of accountability and data collection, passed down from above.

She says: "You're on a constant treadmill trying to keep things going. You just can't fit everything in."

She is now looking to leave teaching because, she says, "I don't know how much longer I'd be able to cope with the stress."

We have disguised her identity.

'The current level of pressure in unsustainable'

The National Union of Teachers Cymru says that many teachers are being "burnt out", and there are many more who have not taken time out of school, despite the fact "they're drowning under the pressures they're facing."

What we're seeing is huge levels having to take time off because they've been pushed to the point of mental exhaustion. Stress and anxiety that go hand-in-hand with workload pressures and accountability measures that are not improving standards, are resulting in teachers having to take time out of the classroom.

Teaching is a vocation for many - but ultimately, for many, they find that after a number of years they are completely burnt out because of the current system - and I do genuinely fear that, in years to come, we could end up with a shortage of teachers because this isn't an attractive profession any more.

What would be beneficial is if the Welsh Government conducted a workload survey to get the hard facts - exactly what the situation is on the ground - and then we can pinpoint where we can actually alleviate some of those workload pressures, and take out of the system some of the things that are being done unnecessarily, and let teachers get on with teaching children.

The current levels of workload, the current levels of pressure that is being put on teachers in unsustainable. We can't keep seeing 50,000 days teaching lost every year because of stress-related illnesses.

That's not even to account for the hidden pressures over those who still remain in class, despite the fact that they're drowning under the sort of pressures they're facing, and the sort of workload.

Unless we get something done about this, it is unsustainable, and it does really risk the sort of progress we've made in recent years in education in Wales.

– Owen Hathway, Policy Officer, NUT Cymru
Teachers are thought to work an average of more than 60 hours per week. Credit: PA

Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson Simon Thomas has joined the union in calling for the Welsh Government to conduct a workload survey of the hours worked by teachers, similar to that conducted recently in England, and look at what measures can be put in place to reduce the burden upon them.

The Welsh Government has responded by saying that it is already "engaging closely with teachers, schools and local authorities to address the profession's concerns over teacher workload."

Our education reform programme is focused on driving up standards across the board and teachers have a pivotal role to play.

We are committed to ensuring teachers have a suitable work/life balance and there are a number of statutory provisions in force to help us achieve this.

We have seen significant progress over the past 5 years with a reduction of 25% in the number of sick days taken by teachers.

We have listened to the profession’s concerns over teacher workload and are engaging closely with teachers, schools and local authorities to address them. We have also carried out a number of workforce surveys to inform policy development.

– Welsh Government spokesperson