New Research Study to Investigate — and Address — Teacher Stress

View from back of classroom, with teacher, standing with hand lifted to face, blurred in the background.
With federal funding, the research team will explore interventions to help reduce schoolteacher stress and improve mental well-being, with the long-term goal of retraining teachers in classrooms. (Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash)

Even prior to the pandemic, stress and poor mental well-being stood out as the main factor driving school teachers from the classroom — not to mention the No. 1 reason for the nation’s current teacher shortage, according to Neag School Professor Lisa Sanetti.

When it comes to teacher stress, COVID-19 has only caused further damage. In surveys done during the pandemic, Sanetti says, 60% of teachers nationwide reported enjoying their job less, and a quarter of them indicated that they were “just getting by” or “having difficulty getting by” financially.

“Decades of ignoring teachers’ poor mental well-being combined with the stressors of COVID-19 has significant short- and long-term threats to the teacher supply in the U.S.,” Sanetti says.  “The implications for students, families, districts, and our nation could be dire.”

Thanks to newly renewed federal funding for a Total Worker Health® Center of Excellence — a collaborative program between UConn Health, UConn Storrs, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell — Sanetti, co-PI and UConn Health Associate Professor Jennifer Cavallari, UConn Health Assistant Professor Alicia Dugan, and their colleagues will be carrying out a five-year study specifically focused on improving the mental well-being of school teachers. The long-term goal is to boost retention of teachers in the field.

“Decades of ignoring teachers’ poor mental well-being combined with the stressors of COVID-19 has significant short- and long-term threats to the teacher supply in the U.S.”

— Professor Lisa Sanetti

The funding, secured by Associate Professor of Medicine William S. Shaw, chief of UConn’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, comes from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH funds 10 different Total Worker Health Centers of Excellence nationwide.

The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) is a Center based at UConn and UMass-Lowell. Its research goal, per the Center’s website, is “to evaluate the feasibility, effectiveness, and economic benefits of integrating occupational health and safety with health promotion interventions to improve employee health.”

Partnering With School Districts

One of three new CPH-NEW projects, the Total Teacher Health research study will involve anonymously surveying more than 1,600 teachers in select school districts across the country and conducting focus groups to identify the factors affecting teachers’ mental health and well-being.

Sanetti, an expert in school-based mental health, is part of an interdisciplinary team with experts in industrial/organizational psychology and occupational epidemiology, which will look to partner with three Connecticut school districts on implementing CPH-NEW’s Healthy Workplace Participatory Program (HWPP), a research-based approach to improving workplace health and well-being.

Working closely with designated groups of schoolteachers and administrators at two elementary schools within each of these three school districts, the researchers will guide teachers in identifying their most intense stressors, their causes, and possible interventions.

The ultimate goal will be to implement interventions for these teachers throughout the school year to reduce their stressors and improve mental well-being. Each intervention will be designed to address specific factors that the researchers have uncovered as negatively influencing teachers’ mental health. The HWPP, the researchers note, prioritizes changes in the way work is done over personal behavior changes.

The following year, Sanetti says, the team will not only re-engage in this process to address additional factors, but will also look to ramp up “capacity within each school to continue building their school as a healthy workplace” going forward.

“CPH-NEW has demonstrated the success of the HWPP in providing supervisors and workers with the processes and skills to implement workplace changes that improve worker well-being,” Cavallari says. “We look forward to working with teachers.”

Three schools in two districts in Connecticut were involved in piloting the HWPP. Teachers in each school identified unique stressors, and the HWPP process led to site-specific interventions that began reducing stressors and improving working conditions.

“We are indebted to the teachers and principals who participated in the pilot studies. They provided critical information about how the HWPP can be adapted to fit within school routines and confirmed that one-size-fits-all approaches aren’t likely to work,” Sanetti says. “We hope to have a better understanding of teacher mental well-being and the factors influencing teacher stress, and how to feasibly reduce them.”  

Adapting the implementing the HWPP will, the researchers hope, provide a vital avenue for improving teachers’ work-life balance, reducing their level of burnout, and positively engaging them in their work.  

To learn more about being a Total Teacher Health School District Partner, contact Lisa Sanetti in the Neag School’s Department of Educational Psychology.