5 ways to de-stress this summer

17th July 2015 at 01:00
For under-pressure teachers, switching off over the holidays may seem a distant dream. But simple strategies can help you to banish the stress and make the most of your break, writes psychologist Sir Cary Cooper

There was a time when the final school bell of the academic year signalled something significant. It was a starting gun for authorised absence, a fanfare announcing that the annual migration to the campsites and hotels of Europe could begin. Six wine-soaked weeks of not worrying about, not even thinking about school awaited.

But times have changed. That bell now sounds like a muffled, mocking snigger. It signals not a holiday, nor an escape, but a failed promise. Sure, teachers may still make their annual migration. But they have more than factor 25 in their luggage - the worry of work is also stowed away. And although it's true that teachers can escape the confines of their school, the reprieve is only temporary: the date when they "pop in" to "do a few bits and get a head start" comes earlier each year.

This is bad news for students - and worse news for teachers. Taking a proper break is not just advisable, it is essential. Thankfully, there is something you can do about it, with or without help from the government.

It's all work, work, work

The workload issue is not as new as you might think. Twenty years ago, I carried out a national study of teacher stress with Dr Cheryl Travers of Loughborough University (supported by the NASUWT teaching union). The resulting 1995 book, Teachers Under Pressure, revealed high levels of sickness absence, premature retirement and burnout in the profession.

Sadly, the situation has worsened. As numerous occupational surveys and studies have found, teachers are working even longer, more unsocial hours. They have heavier workloads, are more vulnerable to fluctuating government policy (whichever party is in power), are highly regulated and are increasingly "named and shamed" in the public arena. There has been a concomitant decline in their personal status - in their communities and in the public's perception.

This has resulted in increasing levels of presenteeism (teachers arriving at school earlier and staying later) and leavism (teachers using their holidays to catch up on work, rather than taking time out from the pressures).

As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for excellent teaching or healthy staff. Instead, it opens the door to stress, invites it in and makes it comfortable.

Insomnia or sleep disturbance, fatigue, muscle tension and pain, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, inability to focus and concentrate, more socially withdrawn or aggressive behaviour, general irritability - these are the early warning signs. They can lead to more serious illness: cardiovascular disease and increased risk of heart attacks, severe tension headaches and other musculoskeletal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression.

It's important to remember that it is not only the teacher who is affected. There is also a knock-on effect on a person's family when they constantly work in the evenings and at weekends, or frequently worry about work. This can trigger problems with a teacher's partner or children.

Kicking stress to the kerb

It's a bleak picture, and unfortunately these are very real problems for many teachers. Of course, individual factors can influence whether you are more vulnerable to stress, including your gender, whether you have a Type A ("workaholic") behaviour pattern and your level of emotional intelligence. Let's address these one by one.

l It's a generalisation, but women tend to create socially supportive relationships that help them to deal with stressful situations, whereas men don't.

l Type A behaviour - being driven, overly ambitious and aggressive in relationships - can predispose someone to stress-related illness, particularly heart disease. If this sounds like you, it's worth remembering what Woody Allen wrote: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying."

l Individuals who have greater emotional intelligence - the ability to identify their own emotions and those of others - are better able to manage stress at work, as well as in other aspects of their lives.

But even if you do fall into a more at-risk category, the worst excesses of stress are avoidable. Stress is not indelibly etched on to your being as soon as you qualify as a teacher; rather, it is something that is mostly under your control.

I say mostly because some of the change clearly has to come from above. School leaders and government figures need to take holidays seriously. Rest and recuperation is vital for an engaged and refreshed workforce - one that can more effectively deal with the pressures of the classroom.

In the field of occupational "respite" research, hundreds of studies highlight the value of holidays for recharging one's psychological and physical batteries. Importantly, respite also enables staff to invest in important relationships, such as those with their family and friends. These social support systems will be there when they need them in the future.

The human body is like a car, in the sense that it has lots of moving parts and is vulnerable to strain. It is in need of regular maintenance - holidays are our MOT.

But school leaders and politicians don't just need to ensure that teachers take a break in the holidays - workload during term time must also be addressed. Time-management and planning skills enable staff to achieve without becoming overloaded or adopting a crisis-management approach that can lead to consistently working long hours. Training in priority management and goal-setting is needed, as well as a recognition that there are only so many productive working hours in a day.

At the prospect of either of the above happening any time soon, teachers will no doubt laugh the tired laugh of a person who has been promised the world but delivered nothing. Numerous times.

So how can you remove yourself from the tight and rather suffocating embrace of stress without help from the powers that be? Well, you have to try to deal with the causes of stress in a more effective way. Here's how.

1 Modify your behaviour

A Type A pattern is a socially and self-induced form of habitual behaviour that leads to stress. It is one that many teachers develop in the course of a frenetic working life.

The pattern is comprised of a sense of urgency, impatience and an aggressive style with others. Teachers need to modify and learn new behaviours that will enable them to be less driven, to control their anger and to be a bit more laid back.

Ask yourself the following questions. Why am I in a hurry? Why am I letting that person upset me? Why do I feel overly competitive with X at work? Why do I have to do that today? Why am I pushing myself so hard that I don't have time for my family and friends?

Learning to be more patient and less internally angry can enhance your mental well-being. Many books are designed to help people with Type A tendencies to cultivate the opposite, Type B traits.

2 Create and use social groups

Building more supportive social relationships is important to minimise stress at work. Such relationships provide individuals with a range of resources, such as honest feedback, emotional care and a listening ear, all of which are critical in the preventive management of stress.

You can do a range of things to develop such relationships: be honest and considerate in your communication with others; "give" willingly; listen to others; be appreciative when others help you; and be prepared to apologise when appropriate.

As former US president Ronald Reagan once said: "I've always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other, instead of about each other."

3 Exercise regularly

The natural counterbalance to the stress response is the relaxation response, which involves physical exercise and relaxation training.

Doing aerobic exercise for at least 20-30 minutes three times a week will help you to achieve not only cardiovascular conditioning but also the right psychological state of mind to put the sources of stress into perspective.

You can also relearn relaxation. When you are feeling under pressure, follow these simple steps: choose a tranquil spot, sit quietly in a comfortable position, close your eyes, relax your muscles, breathe slowly, think of a peaceful place (a stream in the country or a quiet beach) and let your thoughts come and go without holding on to them.

4 Seek alternative outlets for emotion

Finding outlets for your emotions, rather than projecting them on to your colleagues or significant others, helps to reduce tension. Keep a personal diary, and try to develop a close relationship with a work colleague or friend that enables you to express your feelings in a secure, supportive environment.

Not only is this cathartic but it is also a constructive means of highlighting what is causing you stress, so that you can deal with it directly.

5 Be optimistic

Developing the skill of being optimistic is the final part of the health and well-being puzzle for teachers.

Individuals tend to develop either optimistic or pessimistic habits of thought with regard to what happens to them at work and in life generally.

Optimistic thinkers focus on the benefits of good events at work and minimise the stressful aspects of bad events. They view stressful events as temporary, with limited bad effects, whereas pessimists tend to magnify adversity and the stressful aspects of bad events.

Individuals can be trained in "learned optimism", changing the way they view workplace events, particularly during adversity or high-pressure situations, which can make bad events less stressful. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play Mrs Warren's Profession: "People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."

Taking control and having a positive attitude to obstacles is an important characteristic of "effective copers".

Fit, unburdened and successful

Teaching is a potentially stressful job but also a very rewarding and important one. Children, parents and wider society need engaged, passionate and healthy teachers. To cope with the pressures they face, teachers need to find a better balance in their lives by taking their holiday entitlement, managing the hours they work and embracing at least some of the strategies that I have highlighted here.

Perhaps we could all benefit from the sound advice of the great British social reformer John Ruskin, who wrote in 1851: "In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it."

This is the challenge for all of us in education.

Sir Cary Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Business School. He is the co-author of How to Deal with Stress and Well-being: productivity and happiness at work

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