As someone with a biological science background, I have had an interest in the effects of sleep deprivation and stress on the human body for many years. I mention my exhaustion in My Story of How I Left Teaching. For me as a teacher, the first sign that something wasn’t right was the forgetfulness that followed the mental exhaustion. This was most certainly due to a combination of both stress and sleep deprivation.
The diagram above is based on the ‘Williams pressure performance curve’. One of the reasons that so many teachers are thinking of leaving teaching is because they are constantly working in the strain stage. Some of those will start to feel the effects of exhaustion. Unfortunately, there are some who must be signed off by their doctors because of ill health, breakdown and burnout. In January 2020 (before lockdown), a study by UCL Institute of Education found that the percentage of teachers prescribed antidepressants had increased from around 1 per cent in the early 2000s to around 5 per cent. That’s a disgraceful statistic!
Here are some of the comments I have received in direct messages on my Thinking of Leaving Teaching Facebook page:
“I’ve been trying to leave teaching since 2014, I suffer with depression and I’m currently on a long term supply post which I cannot manage, need to leave because of my health…”
“Love the day to day aspects of my job and teaching my subject, but I am currently off sick with work related stress, depression and anxiety. This has been brought about by SLTs relentless quest for outstanding at any cost.”
“There have been many tears shed and many days crying when I sat on the edge of my bed contemplating taking a sick day, but as a sub teacher with no contract you would get tossed to the side…”
“For the last 3 weeks since we went back to school I have had a headache every day. I feel exhausted, burned out and demoralised. I’m close to tears most days and have been for the last year definitely.”
“I am nearly 58, work my butt off in a private special needs school and suffer with depression and anxiety plus general inertia.”
If you are under too much stress or are deprived of sleep, your body releases more of the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is an important hormone produced by the adrenal glands as part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. It keeps us motivated and responsive to our environment and helps the body manage stress. However, if you’re not fighting or fleeing then its levels can remain high and this can result in physical damage.
The Effects of Stress
In excessive amounts, cortisol is tied to symptoms and ailments including weight gain, anxiety, hormonal imbalances and fertility problems. Excessive amounts of cortisol can break down skin collagen which is the protein that keeps your skin smooth and elastic. More worryingly, high levels of cortisol suppress the immune system and inflammatory pathways, rendering the body more susceptible to disease.
Watch this TED Talk by Matt Walker about the importance of sleep.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation
There are many other symptoms of sleep deprivation and stress and these can be seen in the table. What you may notice is that the effects of sleep deprivation are very similar to the effects of stress:
Janet Dowling left teaching after 25 years and retrained as a Solution Focused Clinical Hypnotherapist. She now helps people to reduce their anxiety and improve their sleep. All her clients are given a relaxation recording to help them to improve their sleep. If we get enough sleep (between 7 and 9 hours for adults) then we can cope with stresses of life much better.
Janet has kindly offered a relaxation recording for free. She says, “I can’t wave a magic wand and make the stress go away but I can offer anyone here suffering with anxiety, low mood and poor sleep a little bit of help.”
You can also stream the recording directly from Janet’s website. It’s on the FAQ page by the photo of the CD.
Stress and blood pressure
“I’m absolutely desperate to escape – the pressure is really affecting my health (high blood-pressure, chronic insomnia, severe anxiety, panic attacks and a constant battle to keep my weight under control due to constant cortisol flooding)…”
That is just one comment relating to high blood pressure which has been posted on my Facebook page, Thinking of Leaving Teaching.
The link between stress and blood pressure has been known for a long time and high blood pressure has many risk factors, including:
- Too much salt in your diet
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Lack of physical activity
- Being overweight or obese
Study finds 81.2% teachers believe workload is contributing to high levels of stress in schools. But only 65.6% of senior school leaders believe this is the case https://t.co/8hA6ylo8GW— Tes (@tes) October 28, 2019
What concerns me about teaching is not just the stress and lack of sleep that it causes. The lifestyle means that many teachers complain about not having enough time for exercise and/or will admit to drinking more alcohol (for example, many teachers joke about drinking wine to get them through an evening of marking and reports!). These are all risk factors for high blood pressure which, if left uncontrolled, can lead to:
- Heart attack or stroke
- Heart Failure
- Dementia (vascular dementia)
- Damaged blood vessels in kidneys and eyes
The link between sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease?
Channel 4’s Live Well For Longer, shown on 25 July 2018, was a fascinating watch and discussed Stress and Blood Pressure. In that programme they also discussed the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease. One of the main culprit’s of Alzheimer’s disease is a protein called Amyloid beta, which builds up during the day and coats the brain’s neurons in plaques.
In Alzheimer’s brains, the plaques kill the neurons. In healthy brains, the plaques don’t build up. Recent research has found that a novel system in the brain seems to clear away the amyloid beta when we sleep. Just one night of bad sleep in healthy, middle-aged adults causes an increase in amyloid beta. Consequently, poor sleep may not only increase the risk of cognitive problems, as mentioned in the table above, but may also be associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Although amyloid beta levels probably go back down the next time the person has a good night’s sleep, what is of concern is people who have chronic sleep problems.
In the current educational climate, head teachers are trying to raise standards with diminishing budgets and, as a result of this pressure, teacher wellbeing may well be overlooked. Nevertheless, head teachers still have a duty of care to exercise in seeking to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their staff.
If the stress of teaching is causing you chronic sleep problems then you must do something about it. I very strongly believe that if your job is making you unhappy and is affecting your health then you must consider leaving.