Teaching Profession

Teachers, Tame the ‘Sunday Scaries’

By Elizabeth Heubeck — April 18, 2024 4 min read
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A general feeling of malaise. Bouts of panic. Insomnia. These are just some of the symptoms that can accompany the “Sunday scaries"—a label that’s become affixed to that feeling of dread countless employees experience as they contemplate the workweek ahead.

It’s a real thing. Mental health experts describe the Sunday scaries as a form of anticipatory anxiety, characterized by fear or distress regarding a future event. In a recent Harris Poll survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers, 75 percent of respondents reported experiencing the phenomenon. Topping the reasons for respondents’ dread? Next week’s workload, last week’s workload, and balancing work and personal life.

Teachers likely can relate to each of these stressors. In addition to the sheer weight that comes with the responsibility of preparing children for their future, teachers carry a heavy workload, averaging 57 hours per week, according to the EdWeek Research Center. These factors make teachers prime candidates for the Sunday scaries, and statistics bear this out.

In a January 2023 nationwide survey by the RAND Corp., teachers reported experiencing frequent job-related stress at nearly twice the rate of other working adults—58 percent compared to one-third of other workers surveyed.

All this stress begs the question: How can teachers cope? Education Week sought to find out.

Coping mechanisms: Prayer, wine, and sleep aids

In a recent social media poll, Education Week asked teachers to share whether they experience the Sunday scaries and, if so, how they cope. Most comments appeared to be tinged with sarcasm, including these succinct responses: “I pray,” “Wine,” and “Sleeping pill.”

But at least one respondent offered practical input, such as this comment: “I make sure all my plans and copies are made by Friday before I leave school so I know that when I walk in on Monday, I’m ready to go.”

While not earth-shattering or provocative in any way, the advice makes sense. And it’s something that mental health professionals espouse. In fact, there’s even a term for it: proactive coping, which refers to engaging in practices that allow people to avoid future stressors, especially by planning ahead and setting realistic expectations. The term may be relatively new, but the idea isn’t.

“Old-timers would say: ‘Proper planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance,’” said Kathleen V. Shea, a Chicago-based psychologist whose expertise includes workplace stress and related issues.

While some mental health professionals advocate practices known to alleviate stress before heading out the door on Monday morning, like deep breathing and meditation, Shea urges professionals to incorporate detailed preparation into their pre-Monday strategies. “You want to make sure your clothes are ready, your lunch is ready, your car is ready, and you have a backup plan,” she said. “You can have the best lesson plan possible, but you still have to get yourself to work on time.”

Being as prepared as possible to face the workweek ahead can stave off some amount of anxiety, but it may not entirely eliminate the Sunday scaries, experts caution. “Teachers are under a great deal of pressure to perform,” said Shea.

What schools can do to help

Teacher stress has not gone entirely unrecognized. Especially since the pandemic, some school districts have begun paying greater attention to the health of their employees by doing things such as providing some form of on-site mental health support.

For instance, the Phoenix Union high school district in 2020 hired two full-time licensed counselors for its staff members, starting with an employee wellness program and expanding to address employees’ mental health needs. All district employees can now meet with a counselor, free of charge, for mental health support on a one-time basis. These counselors also can connect employees to longer-term help as needed, Education Week reported in October 2023.

However beneficial, services like onsite mental health professionals for employees appear to be fairly rare within K-12 districts. In a 2022 nationwide EdWeek Research Center survey of district and school leaders, only one-third of respondents said they had made counselors or mental health services available to staff since the start of the pandemic or added to (previously offered) mental health services.

Gestures of appreciation may not replace the need to seek support from a mental health professional for anxiety or stress, but teachers report that this simple practice does support their mental well-being. In a 2024 EdWeek Research Center survey of nearly 1,000 educators, more than half of all respondents agreed that specific, positive verbal feedback was “very meaningful.”

“What [teachers] are really hoping for is not the public recognition but getting that reinforcement that your teaching is really effective,” Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Education Week.

Having access to ongoing support at school can also prevent the buildup of anxiety and stress that feed into the Sunday scaries, especially among new employees. “If they are not supported for the first three months, they don’t acclimate. They start to dread work,” said Shea, who added that she pushes her clients, regardless of industry, to assign both a peer and a mentor to new employees.

New teachers may be more likely than experienced educators to feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, but the Sunday scaries can strike teachers at any stage of their careers. That’s why it’s critical to proactively address the dread of the pending workweek—as well as any lingering anxiety and stress. Doing so can improve the long-term outlook not only for teachers, but for their students too, as research has shown that educators’ stress can ultimately harm students’ academic performance and classroom engagement.

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