Mindfulness for the Education Sector

A friend drew my attention to two new research reports from the charity “Education Support Partnership” on the wellbeing staff in universities.  A qualitative study found that academics are often isolated and anxious, in a system they feel is driven by financial targets – what one called a “treadmill of justification”.  A second survey, by YouGov for the charity, found that 55% of higher education professionals describe themselves as stressed and nearly four in 10 had considered leaving the sector in the past two years as a result of health pressures.

A piece in the Guardian quoted Dennis Guiney, an educational psychologist and co-author of the research:

“Lack of collegiality was a big concern for the academics we spoke to. Rather than focusing solely on money, they felt university managers should be building this. Academics need to feel valued. Praise is important.” His research found that academics felt under much more pressure to deliver within the competitive new market in higher education, and this meant a sense of loss of control over their job. The report quotes one academic saying: “You have to do all you can to keep student numbers high. Otherwise, next year one of your colleagues might lose their job.” [See here ]

It seems that the “target driven approach” to education is causing stress for staff at all levels of the education system.  From my own experience it seems that most working in education are continuously suspicious that all DOFE initiatives are specifically designed to case more stress and anxiety.  They may or may not do so… but it is undeniable that there is an ingrained belief that teachers are stressed and the high-ups don’t care.

Yet before we get too despondent, there is hope.  I can highlight two reports summarising the positive impact of mindfulness interventions on staff in education:

First, a  2014 Report by K Weare  of University of Exeter  summarised the evidence (from 13 studies published in peer reviewed journals ) on the impact of mindfulness on the wellbeing and performance of school staff:

  • reductions in stress, burnout and anxiety, including a reduction in days off work and feelings of task and time pressure,
  • improved ability to manage thoughts and behaviour, an increase in coping skills, motivation, planning and problem solving, and taking more time to relax.
  • better mental health including less distress, negative emotion, depression and anxiety.
  • greater wellbeing, including life satisfaction, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-compassion and sense of personal growth.
  • increased kindness and compassion to others, including greater empathy, tolerance, forgiveness and patience, and less anger and hostility.
  • better physical health, including lower blood pressure, declines in cortisol (a stress hormone) and fewer reported physical health problems. 
  • increased cognitive performance, including the ability to pay attention and focus, make decisions and respond flexibly to challenges.
  • enhanced job performance, including better classroom management and organisation, greater ability to prioritise, to see the whole picture, to be more self-motivated and autonomous, to show greater attunement to students’ needs, and achieve more supportive relationships with them.

  Second, a 2019 paper from Bristol University demonstrated that mindfulness-based interventions contribute to the overall educator wellbeing and this may increase students’ sense of connectedness to teachers without themselves undergoing any intervention:

  • lower levels of perceived stress
  • reduced sleep difficulty
  • higher levels of mindfulness
  • increased self-compassion
  • better emotion
  • Improved students’ sense of connectedness to teachers.

So mindfulness really can help to address the stress and anxiety of education workers.  Of course there are many research papers that show how mindfulness can help people in many professions to be less stressed and less prone to anxiety and depression – but surely these results will convince colleges and schools to introduce such initiatives asap.  They make fiscal sense, educational sense and fulfill the moral obligation to their stressed-out staff.

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