Tes focus on…How to beat teacher stress

The demands on teachers’ cognitive capacity are constantly increasing, leading to a risk of chronic stress, warns Mithu Storoni. But fear not – she tells Simon Creasey how staff can avoid burnout and what school leaders can do to support them
15th November 2019, 12:05am
How To Beat Teacher Stress
Simon Creasey


Tes focus on…How to beat teacher stress


Work, in general, is becoming more stressful for everyone. And that is not just about longer hours or more jobs being squeezed into fewer roles, as many media reports suggest. According to Mithu Storoni, it is also because work is making new demands on us.

Storoni is a physician and researcher interested in chronic stress and its implications for mental wellbeing, decision making, performance and brain health. She's also the author of Stress-Proof: the scientific solution to protect your brain and body - and be more resilient every day.

Historically, she explains, our grandparents and even our parents held jobs in which the focus was on producing things and on physical labour. However, now that we are slowly shifting towards a knowledge age, it is the brain that is increasingly bearing the load.

"As [artificial intelligence] and machines take over aspects of work in many companies and industries, physical labour is being converted to cognitive labour," Storoni says.

This puts more pressure on the brain: we're tiring ourselves out mentally.

You could argue that, in this regard, the rest of the jobs market is simply catching up with the problems teaching has had for some time. But the demands on a teacher's cognitive capacity have certainly increased, too, in the past decade. Whether it is evaluating more varied needs among pupils, taking on more responsibilities that were once handled externally, higher expectations of subject knowledge and research literacy or simply trying to process the multifaceted systems of accountability, the teacher brain is being run ragged.

Restore your resilience

Fortunately, Storoni offers solutions, not just explanations. In her book, she outlines strategies for improving resilience and mental performance, and for preventing chronic stress - which is a growing problem in education circles.

A report published by the National Foundation for Educational Research earlier this year revealed that teachers are experiencing greater levels of job-related stress than other professionals. Thankfully, Storoni says, attitudes to stress are already changing.

"In the past, sleeping less and working harder was a badge of honour, and admitting you were stressed was a sign of weakness," she adds. "People are now realising that you have to look after your mind's performance."

Storoni explains that stress can have a significant impact on an individual's mental and physical wellbeing - and, in turn, on their performance in the workplace: "Chronic stress has a wide range of physical correlations including hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome and metabolic disease. So, by being in a state of chronic stress, teachers are putting themselves at risk for the sake of their career."

As well as being dangerous for teachers, chronic stress is also bad for the children they are teaching, according to Storoni.

"One outcome of chronic stress is burnout," she says. "That's actually a frightening thing with regard to teaching because a teacher doesn't just teach, a teacher inspires. Burnout includes a spectrum of symptoms such as cynicism, thinking things are not worth it any more, thinking work is not valuable any more. If you combine those feelings with the privilege of inspiring a child's future, that's a dangerous combination to have."

So, how can teachers better manage their stress levels?

First, there are a few things that school leaders can do to help. Storoni says there have been a wealth of studies exploring burnout and these have identified a number of preventative measures. One of the big factors is a lack of control.

"Uncertainty causes stress, and not feeling in control can be a big source of burnout," she explains. "What headteachers could do to instil a sense of control in their staff is reduce ambiguity. So, being transparent and sharing decisions about where things are going, what needs to be done, defining goals and identifying problems as opposed to just skirting around them."

Another measure would be to regularly check on the general wellbeing of the teaching team. And also, in intense periods of the school year - such as during exams - to make sure that staff are engaging in what Storoni describes as "self-care routines".

"So, making sure they are sleeping well, eating the right diet and exercising, but also making sure they're not going into maladaptive behaviours," she explains. "One common maladaptive way of coping with chronic stress, for example, is excessive drinking."

Feelings about self-worth and social status also contribute to chronic stress in the workplace, but using the right strategies can help in this regard.

"By defining roles, defining who does what and why that role is valued, providing good feedback, being fair, rewarding effort - all of these things can help," Storoni says. "Creating and nurturing a culture where there is social support, acceptance, authenticity. All of these can help to buffer the effects of chronic stress."

Teachers can also do a number of things to better manage their own stress levels. For instance, getting plenty of sleep and exercise is vitally important for an individual's mental and physical wellbeing.

"[Sleep and exercise] can protect you before, during and after a period of intense stress," Storoni says. "They can buffer some of the changes going on in the brain."

Another useful tool is "active coping" - so, taking some kind of action, even if it is unrelated to the source of stress. Storoni cites the example of the spouse of someone who is in hospital. "While their loved one is in the hospital, they can't just sit there at home twiddling their thumbs. They cope actively. They clean out the garage or they might put some shelves up," she says.

Mastery is another tool that can help. Teachers experiencing high levels of stress should consider finding an activity that has no connection to teaching whatsoever. This could be physical exercise or a hobby.

"If it is challenging, and involves a challenge that you can incrementally improve upon, it can boost your sense of agency and self-efficacy, which contributes to resilience," Storoni says. "Some studies suggest that improving self-efficacy in one domain may translate into another domain of your life."

Find ways to change gear

What underpins many of these techniques is being able to separate yourself from school.

"Effectively, [it's about] detaching yourself psychologically from work when you're not at work," Storoni says. "The moment you get home, do something that is so immersive that your mind can't think about work. Some people exercise, some people might socialise, but that psychological detachment is critical.

"This psychological detachment can help you return to your normal baseline at the end of the day."

The worst thing you can do if you're experiencing stress, she says, is to just sit there and ruminate.

"If you've encountered stress and go back to your chair and do nothing, your brain replays the scene," she explains. "Replaying the scene delays your recovery. So, if you distract yourself the moment the stressful episode is over, it accelerates your recovery and then, obviously, once you're relaxed, you can go back and think about it if you need to."

Storoni points out that stress starts causing harm when it becomes chronic, when we don't recover between episodes or take too long to recover after each one. So, staying vigilant for early warning signs of chronic stress - such as mental exhaustion, poor sleep or excessive worry - and taking appropriate action as soon as they arise, can help to lower the chances of chronic stress building up and causing mental and physical problems later down the line.

Preventing stress is not just an individual's job, though: everyone in a community needs to come together to help each other. And those in schools should be at an advantage here, because there are few more collegiate professions than teaching.

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "Tes focus on…How to beat teacher stress"

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