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Pandemic anxiety was higher for teachers than for health care workers

The return to class did not mean a return to normal for many teachers. Students need more help to recover both academically and emotionally from pandemic disruptions. Staff shortages mean more teachers are overworked and overwhelmed. And many still come to school at risk of illness from COVID-19.

All those stressors take a toll on teachers’ mental health. Regardless of whether they taught in person or online, teachers experienced significantly higher rates of anxiety during the pandemic — even more so than healthcare workers, according to a new studypublished this morning in Educational Researcher, a journal of the American Educational Research Association. It is based on a survey of millions of American workers conducted over seven months in 2020 and 2021.

The challenge of distance education did affect teachers’ mental health. Remote teachers were 60 percent more likely to report feeling socially isolated than their colleagues who were back in the classroom, and remote teachers also showed more symptoms of depression than in-person teachers.

However, the study found that nearly 18 percent of both remote and in-person teachers showed significant anxiety symptoms during the pandemic — such as sleep problems or panic attacks — suggesting severe stress that is less likely to ease as schools return to pre-pandemic instruction.

Teachers in the study were 40 percent more likely to report symptoms of anxiety than health care workers, 30 percent more likely than those in military or agricultural occupations, and 20 percent more likely than office workers.

“I think an argument can be made that healthcare workers know how to act in these high-stress situations. They have dealt with extreme scenarios before and this is part of their training,” he said. “Unfortunately, teachers are now also exposed to it.”

Joseph Kush, an assistant psychology professor at James Madison University and co-author of the study, said he expected older teachers to be “COVID-wary” and have higher anxiety rates because of health concerns, but the study showed that teachers under 30 were more likely to show anxiety and depression than those over 50.

“You know, someone fresh out of college in their first years of teaching, it’s all new. It can be very overwhelming. They may not have gone through a global pandemic,” Kush said. “So I think, maybe older teachers have been in the profession and dealt with emergencies, so they’re just kind of better equipped” to deal with ongoing stress, even if the pandemic was new to them, too.

Researchers analyzed survey data from nearly 3 million US employees—including 130,000 pre-K-12 teachers—who participated in the COVID-19 Trends and Impact Survey from September 2020 to March 2021. That survey, conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi group and Facebook, asked workers about their symptoms of anxiety, depression and isolation during the preceding seven days.

Kush said the study did not differentiate mental health symptoms for teachers of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, grade levels or subject areas. However, it found that female teachers and other workers had much higher symptoms of mental health problems than their male peers. They were 20 percent more likely to feel isolated, 40 percent more likely to show depression, and almost twice as likely to show symptoms of anxiety.

Studies increase on teachers’ stress

The study is just the latest and most nationally comprehensive of a slew of new research into the effects of the pandemic on teachers’ mental health. Earlier this summer, the RAND Corp. found nearly 60 percent of teachers report they are burned out, compared to 44 percent of other workers. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, reported that in 2021, more than half of its teachers said they were more likely to quit or retire early because of ongoing job stress.

Even before the pandemic, studies have shown that teachers report higher levels of stress than those in other professions. But high anxiety is different and can be more damaging to teachers’ relationships with students and their likelihood of continuing to teach. Students of highly anxious teachers may both perform more poorly academically-especially in subjects such as mathematics – and have more negative feelings and behaviour.

In a separate survey this summer, more than 40 percent of teachers surveyed told the EdWeek Research Center they feel less effective in their work due to stress. Teachers also had more difficulty sleeping and enjoying downtime with friends due to stress.

As many school districts expand mental health services and counseling for students, Kush said, “teachers’ voices need to be included” in both the mental health services offered and ongoing decisions about when to stay in-person or go to distance learning in future outbreaks.

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