De-stress yourself

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Do you know the difference between pressure and stress? The latter can be dangerous for mind and body, so take action now, says Cary Cooper
Do you know the difference between pressure and stress? The latter can be dangerous for mind and body, so take action now, says Cary Cooper

Stress - this six letter word has found a firm place in our modern vocabulary. We toss the term about casually to describe a wide range of ills resulting from our hectic pace: "I feel really stressed", someone says to describe a vague yet often acute sense of tension. "She's under a lot of stress", we say when trying to understand a colleague's irritability or forgetfulness. "It's a high stress job", people explain, awarding an odd sort of prestige to certain occupations.

But stress is real and can damage your health. There is a distinction, however, between pressure and stress. Pressure is stimulating and motivating, but when it exceeds your ability to cope, then we are in the "stress" arena.

In the early stages, when you are near the dividing line between pressure and stress, we tend to see behavioural changes. These can take different forms, such as difficulty concentrating, being more aggressive, less decisive or more socially withdrawn.

Once an individual is in the "stress zone" we see the start of ill health - increased alcohol consumption, changes in eating behaviour, difficulty sleeping and constant indigestion. And in the final phase there is a range of illnesses that stress can trigger, from immune system problems (such as frequent colds or more serious viral infections) to cardiovascular difficulties and mental health problems.

I have carried out numerous studies over many years involving more than 50 occupational groups, and teachers consistently come out as one of the most stressed. There are a variety of reasons for this. The national curriculum, league tables and Ofsted mean that teachers have less control over aspects of their job.

Every school is different, but the overall reality is that teachers are working longer hours, dealing with more difficult, needy pupils, and trying to cope with the increasing expectations of parents, the national media and politicians.

To alleviate some of this excessive stress, heads need training to recognise the symptoms in their staff. They can offer social support and counselling for teachers who have difficulty coping. This can be provided by local authorities through Employee Assistance Programmes, which offer private counselling services, or by making money available for counselling if and when it's needed.

Staff could be encouraged to discuss work-related problems in a "health circle" or forum within the school, and then plan a strategy to deal with them. Carrying out a stress or wellbeing audit to assess the problems and issues in the school could help this process (as is regularly seen in local authorities, hospitals and the police service). There are things teachers can do for themselves too:

- Learn to prioritise your work in terms of what needs to be done now and what can wait for later. Make sure you create an "exit time" when you will leave work or stop working, to ensure you spend quality time on yourself and family.

- Taking regular exercise on your way home from school is a simple way to unwind.

- Don't bottle up your worries. If you have a serious domestic problem that is affecting your work, let the headteacher know.

The most important thing is to identify your specific source of stress, discuss options with a trusted friend, and then decide on which route provides you with the most personal benefits and least costs.

You spend most of your waking hours at work, so try to enjoy it. Remember what Studs Terkel, the acclaimed author and social commentator, said in his book Working: "Work should be about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."

For Employee Assistance Programmes, visit: www.eapa.org.uk

Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, and co-author of How to Deal with Stress.

HOW TO DEAL WITH ONGOING AND SUBSTANTIAL PROBLEMS AT WORK

- Keep a diary of stressful incidents over two weeks.

- Rate these incidents on a five-point scale from mild (1) to extreme stress (5).

- Look at the 4s or 5s with a friendcolleague to determine how you can deal with them.

- Select the option with the most benefits and least cost.

HOW TO RELAX DURING THOSE EXCEPTIONALLY STRESSFUL DAYS

- Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed.

- Lie down or sit quietly.

- Close your eyes and picture your favourite relaxing places.

- Focus on the sounds, colours, smells and visual pictures in your mind.

- Stay in this place for up to 10 minutes.

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