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Record 10,000-plus teachers in Japan took leave for mental illness in FY 2021: survey


TOKYO -- The number of public school teachers who took leave for one month or longer due to mental illness in the 2021 academic year topped 10,000 for the first time, it was revealed in a survey by Japan's education ministry on Dec. 26.

    In the 2021 school year, a total of 10,944 public school teachers -- an increase by 15.2%, or 1,448 people, from the previous academic year -- took long-term leave of one month or more due to mental illness, including depression. This accounted for a record-high rate of 1.19% of all teachers in Japan. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology believes that behind the record figures are long working hours, which has been a persistent problem at schools, and an increased workload on young teachers.

    The education ministry's survey targeted around all 919,900 teachers at public elementary, junior high, senior high, and special needs schools, and other such institutions across Japan. The number of teachers who took leave of one month or more to recuperate has been on the rise since the survey was launched in fiscal 2016.

    Of the 10,944 teachers who took long-term leave in academic 2021, 5,897 took time off for more than 90 days, the general limit of sick leave granted to them, setting a new record. This accounted for 0.64% of all teachers, which is also the highest proportion recorded. Since the 2007 academic year, the number of teachers with mental illness who are on leave have been hovering around 5,000.

    An education ministry study conducted in fiscal 2016 found that about 30% of teachers at public elementary schools and around 60% at public middle schools worked overtime of "more than 80 hours a month," which is considered to be the threshold for determining death by overwork. A reform of teachers' long working hours is still in progress, and the ministry believes that the burden of tasks may have been concentrated on some teachers, leading to their taking time off due to mental illness.

    The survey also indicated the proportion of teachers who took sick leave or time off due to mental illness by each age group: 1.87% of those aged in their 20s, 1.36% for those in their 30s, 1.27% for those in their 40s, and 0.92% for those aged 50 or older. There was a higher tendency for younger teachers to take leave, and all age groups saw an increase from the previous academic year. The group of teachers in their 20s saw the greatest increase of 0.43 percentage points.

    A massive number of public school teachers, who were hired in the 1980s following the second baby boom in Japan, are nearing retirement. Meanwhile, due to curbs on hiring around the year 2000 in anticipation of further declines in the birth rate, there is a shortage of teachers aged between their mid-30s and mid-40s to educate the younger generation.

    The education ministry commented, "It can be thought that there's little support for young teachers at schools, as there are many communities with few middle-aged teachers they can turn to casually."

    The survey also examined whether the 5,897 teachers who took leave due to mental illness in academic 2021 had returned to the workplace by April 2022. While 2,473 teachers, or 41.9%, had returned, 2,283, or 38.7%, were continuously on leave, while 1,141, or 19.3%, had quit their jobs.

    A human resources representative of an education board of an ordinance-designated major city believes that the problem lies with the shortage of teachers, which is difficult to cover for when staff leave in the middle of the school year due to child delivery or parenting. This leads to an increase in tasks for one teacher, and makes it difficult for them to bring up health concerns, making their condition worse.

    The representative said that after returning to the workforce, "they need to get right back into their jobs, and many teachers struggle to communicate with children and parents."

    A study conducted in November and December by Hiroshima-based nonprofit Kyouiku no Mori, University of Tokyo professor emeritus Masahito Ogawa and others examined the responses taken by some 80 education boards toward teachers with mental illness. It brought to the fore an overload of work, such as the need for teachers who have just returned to become homeroom teachers, and cases where teachers refuse to sit down with an industrial physician for an interview due to a busy schedule, as well as a lack of support by those in managerial positions.

    The education ministry is set to analyze in detail the cause of teachers' absences, and research ways to create a system where teachers can easily share their concerns.

    (Japanese original by Makoto Fukazu, Tokyo City News Department)

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