Health & Medicine

COVID’s Toll on Teachers

A UW study looks for ways to reduce distress and increase well-being.

Teacher works with student while both wear masks

Mindfulness and other forms of meditation can reduce the kinds of psychological distress that teachers have faced. iStock

During the COVID-19 pandemic, schoolteachers and support staff were forced to revamp lesson plans for virtual and hybrid learning environments, all while toggling between remote and in-person duties and supervising at-home learning. These stressors took a toll on school system employees, according to a study from the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds.

The study is among the first to collect empirical data on school system employees’ mental health during the early stages of the pandemic. In 2020, it enrolled 662 pre-K–12 Wisconsin employees to investigate whether a meditation-based well-being app, the Healthy Minds Program, could reduce distress and increase well-being during the pandemic. The assessments included questions like “How often have you felt that you were on top of things?” and gauged participants’ feelings of nervousness and self-worth. Startlingly, about 78 percent reported clinically meaningful levels of anxiety symptoms, and nearly 54 percent reported clinically meaningful depressive symptoms.

“The degree of elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress we observed is certainly concerning,” says Simon Goldberg PhD’17, an assistant professor of counseling psychology and a member of the research team. “The good news is that we have a large body of evidence suggesting that a variety of psychological interventions can be helpful in reducing exactly these symptoms. Mindfulness and other forms of meditation are among the approaches shown to reduce this kind of psychological distress.”

The research team also examined whether individual characteristics such as family income or type of job affected symptoms. Participants with the lowest family-income levels reported higher stress, a greater likelihood of depressive symptoms, and reduced intentions to continue in the same job in the following school year. This leads to the possibility that increased wages could buffer against stress and depression for workers in positions that are hard to replace.

Research scientist Matthew Hirshberg MS’14, PhD’17, who led the study, notes that psychological health among school system employees is essential. “Supporting employee mental health and well-being may be a prerequisite to student and educational-system pandemic recovery efforts,” he says.

Published in the Fall 2023 issue


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