Mental health days. You’ve probably heard of them. But do they actually make a difference for teachers?
The problem of job stress and burnout has reached a critical level in our country with many industries reporting very high rates of burnout that have increased since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a recent survey from Gallup reported that people in the K-12 education field have the highest rate of significant burnout of any industry: 44%.
Another recent survey from the National Education Association has put the burnout rate even higher — at an astounding 90% among teachers.
Whether the burnout rate is 44% or 90%, the problem and impacts of professional burnout in the K-12 education space are so challenging that 55% of educators now indicate they are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned.
Work-related stress and burnout for educators is one of the most powerful causes of low job performance, absenteeism, and attrition (Martínez 2015; Seth 2016; Skaalvik and Skaalvik 2017).
So What is Burnout?
Occupational burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged job stress.
Educators who are burned out lose interest, lose motivation, and are simply not at their best to meet the needs of their students.
If in fact we lose one-half our teachers across this country over the next few years, student learning and growth would be negatively impacted in incalculable ways.
The Drying of the New-Teacher Pipeline
Exacerbating the burnout problem and the impact on students is the declination of the teacher pipeline at the university level:
- Between the 2008–09 and the 2018–19 academic years, the number of people completing a teacher-education program declined by almost a third.
- Traditional teacher-preparation programs saw the largest decline: 35%
- One large state institution reported a 67% decline in students enrolled in teacher preparation and certification over the last several years.
Can Mental Health Days Help Teachers?
To cope with job-related stress and burnout, many industries have begun to allow employees to take “mental health days.”
A mental health day is described as such:
“A limited time away from your usual responsibilities with the intention of recharging and rejuvenating your mental health. It is an intentional act to alleviate distress and poor mood and motivation, while improving attitude, morale, functioning, efficiency and overall well-being” (via Mayo Clinic).
In the past, many people would simply take a sick day when feeling overwhelmed with stress, but companies in the private sector have begun to respond to job burnout and rebranding sick days as “wellness days,” which employees can take for physical or mental health.
One survey of 455 employers found that only 9% currently offer mental health days, but 30% intend to offer mental-health days in the next couple of years.
However, it is important to note that a mental health day may be more than a single day.
Depending on the circumstances, it could be used to describe an hour, half-day, or even a month away from stressful situations. The specific time frame needed will vary from individual to individual, but it should be long enough to experience the benefits yet not too long as to create long-term issues for the employee.
The use of official mental health days by K-12 educators seemingly is not common, but we do not have solid empirical data to know the prevalence rates.
In The Burnout Challenge, Maslach and Leiter believe that occasional mental health days are positive but that they have little impact on the underlying causes of burnout from the work environment.
The problem is that people are returning to the same environmental stimuli and stress triggers, and “a bit of time off will be a nice bit of fluff.”
Also, when a person takes a mental day, they may potentially increase their stress levels as their work may have “piled up” during their absence.
The fact is we have little to no empirical data on the long-term impacts — positive or negative — from educators taking mental health days.
We do know that a teacher who is absent from the classroom — for any reason — for 10 or more days will have demonstrably negative impacts on student learning.
Adding to this problem is the serious lack of available substitute teachers in most schools, which may leave a classroom unsupervised or staffed by someone who is not qualified to teach.
If schools and districts find that staff are using mental health days but still report feeling stressed and burned out, you must consider addressing the underlying causal influences. There are many potential areas that may need to be addressed, such as student disciplinary problems, which is the number one cause of teacher burnout.
Also, schools must provide positive administrative support, mentoring, instructional coaching, individualized professional development, and team collaboration time.
In general, it is important to evaluate the total school climate to diagnose causes of burnout.
So What to Do Instead?
When on a mental health day, educators are not learning how to cope with future stressors; they are simply taking a break away from their troubles.
The one area often overlooked is providing educators with the tools to help them learn the cognitive and behavioral skills to manage stress and burnout.
In an attempt to provide more than just mental health days, some HR departments provide access to “meditation-type” apps and programs that are great at helping people learn to relax, but they do not go far enough to address the serious nature and underlying causes of job burnout.
Basic meditation and mindfulness apps have these limitations:
- Only address relaxation and sleeping skills
- Do not teach cognitive and behavioral skills to reduce burnout
- Are repetitive and boring for many
- Do not change negative thought patterns
- Do not address the specific triggers for stress and negative thoughts
In summary, it may be helpful for schools to offer staff access to mental health days for job burnout, but the efficacy data here is sorely lacking.
More effective is to address potential underlying causes of burnout — such as poor student discipline and lack of administrative support, pedagogical skills, coaching, and peer collaboration.
SchoolMint can help support you in those efforts with SchoolMint Grow. To see the platform in action, click below to get in touch with our teacher coaching and development experts.
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