Teachers are catching up with doctors at a phenomenal rate; not in terms of pay, unfortunately, but in the hotly-contested work stress stakes. More than half a million Britons report that they are so stressed at work it is making them ill, but top of the sickness chart appear to be those who nurse and teach.
The latest figures show 13 per cent of all work-related stress incidents occur in the education sector. If a colleague is off sick, chances are they are wrestling with stress - something that accounted for 46 per cent of all teacher absences in 2004-05.
Headteachers are particularly badly affected. According to research by the National Association of Head Teachers last year, 38 per cent of lost days among heads were the result of stress, nearly twice the UK average. Doctors stand at 39 per cent.
But now the sector is beginning to fight back. Aware that 1.4 million working days are lost in education due to work-related illness each year, the Health and Safety Executive has introduced Management Standards for Work-Related Stress.
The standards provide a framework to help employers identify issues at source, gauge performance and agree realistic ways to implement improvements. It is also running a series of regional workshops, which allow teachers to measure their stress levels in five important areas.
"Work-related stress is often seen as a taboo that is too complicated to tackle, but it can be treated like any other workplace hazard," explains Paul McCormack, from HSE's stress programme team. "Through our workshops and management standards, employers can access the tools to manage staff well-being effectively."
One of the initiatives already established is the national Well-Being Programme from Worklife Support. Set up by the Teacher Support Network in 1999, Worklife Support has worked with more than 2,000 schools to try to establish the root causes of well-being rather than the symptoms of stress.
The programme involves an anonymous staff questionnaire that is then made into a report and acted upon. This simple but effective approach has seen Well-Being schools experience significant drops in sickness absence and staff turnover.
In Norfolk, where 80 per cent of schools run the programme, teacher time off owing to stress fell by 40 per cent between 2003-04, and by 40 per cent between 2004-05. Corsham Primary School in Wiltshire adopted the programme five years ago to address teacher retention. It used to lose approximately six teachers a year, but last year one teacher moved on.
"The audit has given us a clear synopsis of the issues for staff so we can amend our practice," says Fiona Allen, headteacher.
Since taking the novel programme on board, Corsham has appointed an associate supervisor in order to ensure all staff are kept well briefed and involved in decisions; has held debates on why and how different teachers work different hours, and has addressed the issue of excessive workload. It also provides, but does not pay for, an ironing service, regular head massages, car valeting and a useful booklet on recommended contractors for anything from plumbers to babysitters.
"They are small things intended to make teachers' lives just that little bit easier," says Fiona Allen. "It is a much more flexible and responsive approach that makes teachers feel listened to and valued."
The school's approach represents a long-term commitment to staff well-being, even if it means shorter-term reorganisation. Teachers can take year-long secondments, or can apply for a leave of absence for a term simply to recharge their batteries.
Corsham lost just 40 teaching days due to sickness last year, compared to 165 in 2002. Rooks Heath College in Harrow, Middlesex, has also made significant changes following its first Well-Being survey in 2003. Teachers identified four key areas, ranging from workload to improving the physical environment, that were then woven into the school's development and improvement plan. Since then, subsequent surveys have led to the establishment of a school board that solely deals with staff issues.
Changes made include the provision of healthy food at training days, reviewing the meeting structure so that all staff are included, and an annual cluster day where staff from different schools can relax, have mental and physical health checks and take part in various fun activities.
June Jones, the well-being facilitator at Rooks Heath, admits that the changes after the first survey were more dramatic than those following on from subsequent surveys, but says this is a reflection of how teachers'
needs are being met.
She says: "Different things emerge and evolve year on year. The most important thing is to give teachers an opportunity to express what benefits they want, rather than us presuming and getting it wrong."
The latest research, involving 14,000 staff from a cross-section of Well-Being schools, underlines the breadth of the programme's benefits.
Professor Rob Briner and Doctor Chris Dewberry from Birkbeck College, University of London, found a very "clear and consistent link" between workers' well-being, exam results and value-added this year.
They say: "Schools whose staff, on average, report higher levels of feeling valued, greater job satisfaction and lower levels of work overload are also those schools where Sats performance is higher."
But stress in schools is so widespread that private organisations are now moving into the potentially lucrative market. Gazing Performance, which helps people perform under pressure, is more used to coaching blue chip companies and high-profile rugby players than teachers.
However, once it realised the extent of stress among teachers, it piloted an education programme for schools in Waltham Forest, east London. Emma Trinder from Gazing Performance says:"We are amazed by the level of stress that builds up for teachers as a result of behavioural problems, inspections, league tables, parents - the list goes on.
"We have now designed a course that addresses these issues, making it clear how and what teachers need to do to improve their practice and avoid getting stressed"
WHAT'S BEHIND YOUR WORRIES
The primary sources of work-related stress according to the HSE are:
* Demands - such as workload and the work environment.
* Control - such as how much say each person has in the way they work and the running of the school.
* Support - such as the encouragement and resources provided by the school.
* Relationships - such as promoting a positive working environment that avoids conflict and unacceptable behaviour.
* Role - such as whether people understand their role, while the school ensures they don't have conflicting or overly-demanding roles.
* Change - such as how school change is managed and communicated.
STRESS TIPS FOR FRAZZLED TEACHERS
The Teacher Support Network suggests the following for dealing with stress:
* Recognise the problem. Symptoms can be emotional, such as feeling irritable; behavioural, such as relationship problems; or physical, such as headaches.
* Take a few moments to calm down. Try a quick relaxation technique, such as breathing deeply, closing your eyes and thinking of an image that relaxes you.
* Identify and deal with the causes. Sometimes you will intuitively know what is wrong, but if not, talk to a friend, family member or colleague. If more specialist advice is needed, speak to your doctor.
* Take control of your lifestyle. List everything that is bothering you, work out things you can control and things you cannot.
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