Research from City, University of London and the University of Sheffield suggests that teachers experiencing high levels of exhaustion don't fully recover their wellbeing over the Christmas break.

By Mr Shamim Quadir(Senior Communications Officer), Published

A new study investigating schoolteachers’ mental health over Christmas breaks suggests that primary and secondary school teachers experiencing high levels of exhaustion when term ends are typically still recovering by the time school starts again.

Authored by academics at City, University of London and the University of Sheffield, the study surveyed 90 primary and secondary school teachers over the 2013 Christmas break*, asking about their levels of anxious mood, depressed mood, and exhaustion over the course of seven weeks, before, during, and after the Christmas holidays.

These levels were measured each week, along with the extent of worrying about work, and the hours spent on work during the holiday.

The study found that symptoms of anxious mood, depressed mood, and exhaustion all tended to drop significantly over the holiday period. However, recovery from exhaustion was slower than that of anxious and depressive moods, and tended to be incomplete by the time school began again. Likewise, teachers’ levels of anxiety appeared to rise rapidly compared to depressed moods or exhaustion when the new term got underway.

The vast majority of teachers, 85 per cent, reported carrying out some work tasks during their break. Thirty per cent said that they worked for more than five hours, while 16 per cent worked for more than ten hours.

Despite this, it seems that worrying about work - as opposed to doing it - was a bigger factor in teachers struggling to recover from negative moods and exhaustion, and led to a faster increase in these symptoms returning when they went back to work.

The effects of actually performing work tasks during the holiday were more complex - they were shown to limit recovery from exhaustion, but could also reduce a rise in anxiety when the new school term gets underway. This is likely due to the fact that the build-up of tasks on returning to work was reduced.

As a result, the findings suggest that although reducing hours spent working could improve wellbeing, it may be more important to find ways to reduce levels of persistent thinking about work.

Dr Paul Flaxman, co-author of the study and Reader at the Department of Psychology, School of Health & Psychological Sciences, City, University of London, said:

Schools could consider ways of preventing teachers becoming overly exhausted because they are completing unfinished job tasks during vacations. They could also seek staff training programmes that help teachers disentangle themselves from excessive worrying about work issues during their leisure time.

Dr Chris Stride, co-author, and Senior Lecturer (Statistician) at University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology, said:

“It is extremely concerning that so many teachers reported still feeling exhausted after having time off. This could lead to a vicious cycle resulting in burnout - schools need to put measures in place to prevent this from happening and protect the wellbeing of their staff.”

The study is published online in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

*It is widely expected that feelings of exhaustion have continued to worsen since the 2013 Christmas school break to present, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to burnout and an increased number of teachers leaving the profession.