A little stress is better than being bored

24th September 2004 at 01:00
It is said that changing jobs, moving house and getting divorced are among the most stressful experiences in life. I don't have the complete set, but two out of three isn't bad going. Over the past month I have been settling into my new post at Aberdeen University and trying to put my domestic arrangements into some sort of order. Finding out about different systems from the ones I have been used to, meeting new colleagues and dealing with a wide range of practical matters has inevitably brought some pressure (as well as lots of interest).

But I have been fortunate to receive plenty of support and could not claim to be unduly stressed. Once the academic year is fully under way, it may be a different story.

While it is relatively early in the new school term, some teachers will already find their stress levels are increasing. The causes are likely to be varied: too much to do in too little time; difficult pupils; pressure from managers to meet targets and improve results; strained relations with colleagues; a poor teaching environment; inadequate resources.

Part of the difficulty is the relentless nature of the school day. There is little time to step back from the situations that are stressful and take stock of what is happening. The next class is waiting and demanding attention. Thus the effects of stress are cumulative because there are few moments of tranquillity or opportunities for release.

Good employers recognise this and make provision for staff to talk about their concerns and receive support in addressing them. Some have helplines and provide access to counselling services. Reports by teachers'

organisations and the research study reported in The TES Scotland two weeks ago, however, indicate that such support is certainly not universal.

Psychological evidence suggests that stress is a complex phenomenon which resists easy description. What is stressful for one person may be quite unproblematic for another. Moreover, some stress can be beneficial as it may stimulate action and lead to new ways of looking at situations, thereby preventing the deadening effects of oppressive routine.

The notion of a completely stress-free environment may be attractive in theory but would be much less so in practice. This leads to the conclusion that most people have an optimum level of stress, though it will vary considerably from person to person. My own experience suggests that if I have too little to do I become bored, but if I have too much to do and insufficient time to do it to a standard that I am happy with, my job satisfaction decreases.

In many jobs, including teaching, stress tends to increase with age - thus the phenomenon of burn-out, often accompanied by a desire for early retirement. That may be appropriate for some people but, for others, it could be a mistake. What may be required is a complete change rather than freedom from all commitments.

The psychologist Robert Fisher, referring to children's thinking, contrasts what he calls the "safeguarding" self with the "experimental" self. Whereas the former is cautious, rigid, sticks to what it knows and relies on others, the latter is curious, confident, independent and speculative.

This contrast has equal relevance to adults. Older people who go on learning, develop new interests and remain open to different experiences are much more likely to lead fulfilling lives than those who habitually retreat to the safe and familiar. Striking out in a different direction may bring some stress but, if the alternative is a slow decline and increasing disenchantment, the risk may be worth taking.

Walter Humes is professor of education and director of research in the school of education at Aberdeen University.

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