The Issue: Stress management - Value and respect can help the battle against burnout

11th April 2008 at 01:00
A head's management style has a huge impact on stress levels among staff in school. Yojana Sharmaoutlines strategies to help prioritise the wellbeing of teachers

When the going gets tough, teachers get ... stressed. A recent survey of local authorities found that 500,000 teacher days were lost because of stress last year, at an estimated cost of pound;84 million.

But proactive school leaders who can make staff feel valued and respected can play a large part in relieving the pressure on them.

"Having carried out research in 80 occupational groups, teaching is in the top three or four for stress," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and a former president of the International Stress Management Association.

The Government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is targeting education as one of the top five priority sectors for tackling workplace stress. Chartered occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder researched all five sectors for the HSE - the others are the police, health services, financial services and local government.

"Comparative statistics show that teachers are particularly vulnerable to stress," she says.

Despite initiatives to reduce teachers' workload, a recent survey carried out by the Teacher Support Network and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that demands on staff and their time had increased over the past five years. Seven in every 10 teachers and lecturers said their health had suffered because of the job. Among school leaders, three-quarters said their health was affected.

"School stress is pretty bad, not because teaching or the job of managing teachers is particularly stressful, but because education is a political issue and there is constant change," says Professor Cooper. "Change produces stress."

All schools are affected by the bugbear of government initiatives, yet many are happy places. That means heads and leadership teams must be able to recognise it in their schools and help staff to become more resilient.

"Clearly, external factors such as government requirements, form-filling and bureaucracy, or children who are acting up in the classroom are beyond the control of the head in terms of removing stress," says Ms Donaldson-Feilder. "But my experience is that if you have a good manager, someone whose behaviour is protective, supportive, esteem-enhancing and who encourages participation, the impact of external stress is relieved. If staff feel they are valued and respected, they can handle a lot more in terms of demands."

Attitude is crucial. Research by the National College for School Leadership found that heads who relish challenge and enjoy the variety of the role are those who distribute leadership effectively, develop supportive networks, and can deal confidently with people without becoming overwhelmed by the pressures of the job.

"A head's management style is critical," says Professor Cooper. "A headteacher has to manage through praise and reward. Being autocratic and finding fault will not make a successful school."

Even so, day-to-day lower-level stress can build up unnoticed and begin to affect mental and physical health. One of the human resources tools for monitoring this is the "stress audit" - psychometric surveys of all staff who report that they are stressed and why.

"It will look at things like, are you under stress and what is the origin of it?" says Professor Cooper. "There can be no solution to stress unless you know the causes."

Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove Primary in south London, dismissed such audits. "It is the last thing I would want," he says. "Any effective head will recognise when there's a problem building up. It's part of the job. If you have a lot of stressed people in school, you're running a rotten school."

John Bower, head of St Francis of Assisi School in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, did not need a stress audit to know how difficult things were for staff and pupils when he had to steer them through an amalgamation of three primaries.

"It was about putting together three staffs with different expectations and ideas - all with a different ethos - from three schools that had been successful and happy in their own right," he says.

Mr Bower had to break the bad news to staff that they were about to lose their jobs. "No headteacher should have to go through that," he says. "It was very, very traumatic."

He had barely recovered from one big round of job losses, when he had to do it again a year later - "because the pupil numbers were not quite up". He also had to apply for his own job, which affected his own health and family life. And he was used to high levels of stress in a school that serves a severely deprived area and that was destroyed in an arson attack in the 1990s.

"You did not have to go looking to see how stressed people were," says Mr Bower. "You can't miss the signs of this condition. People got ill. They burst into tears."

A small primary with 140 pupils on its roll was "invaded" by 150 children from other schools. Many were taught in portable classrooms until a new pound;4.3m school opened in April 2007. Only now, five years later, are things beginning to resemble anything like normal.

Take-up for counselling and other forms of professional support was minimal. "We were offered a lot of things, but most teachers haven't got time," Mr Bowers says.

So it fell to the head to build staff resilience. Mr Bower held in-service training days on how to cope. "You have to take staff wellbeing seriously," he says, "otherwise they think they are abandoned and they give up."

Lancashire County Council provided back-up using a system developed by Worklife Support, a scheme run by the Teacher Support Network.

Brenda Hopper, Lancashire's wellbeing co-ordinator, says: "We meet with heads and focus on the issues that come up from surveys; we talk about strategies they might adopt and offer support. It is not touchy-feely stuff. It is about management practice and how all employees can thrive."

"The programme offers a systematic way for school leaders to understand how the staff are coping. It goes beyond an intuitive sense - it is a real measure and helps the management team to plan and prioritise the wellbeing of staff.

Mr Bower says: "The wellbeing programme was a tool to facilitate the change. It highlighted areas that needed attention. Despite everything, we are succeeding. On a five-point scale, we are now measuring four in terms of wellbeing levels."

Several local authorities, including Norfolk, Suffolk, Lancashire, and the London boroughs of Barnet, Newham and Bexley, offer Worklife Support to schools. Staff absence and sickness have dropped.

Carol Lynch, director of Worklife Support, says support for the organisation as well as the individual is the only way to make sustainable improvements. "We concentrate on practical ways to create wellbeing rather than focusing on the causes of stress," she says.


1. Delegate duties but be careful not to overload other members of your staff.

2. Listen carefully to your staff and be available to all of them. And always take seriously any concerns they have.

3. Explain and prepare your staff for any changes or government initiatives well in advance, and set a pace for implementation that suits the staff and school.

4. Support teachers in the way they discipline children or deal with parents.

5. Make all members of staff feel valued and respected.


Surveys that flag up the flashpoints

Redstart Primary in Chard, Somerset, put its own stress management project in place and invited three neighbouring schools to take part.

"It was partly to do with the time people were taking off due to illness," said Suzanne Flack, the school's head. "We found the workload and stress were causing people to be ill."

The school carried out a stress survey, then looked at flashpoints, discussing ideas and solutions with staff. A project manager co-ordinated the scheme so that it would not eat into staff time.

"It is important to take a whole-school approach," said Ms Flack. "Otherwise you are just moving the stress from one place to another.

"Instead of the teachers, the assistants get the workload and stress. Where there is workload reduction, there is stress reduction."

Staff "downtime" was vital for building resilience against stress. For example, building works meant the staffroom could be remodelled from an impersonal work space into a cosy area in which staff could relax in comfort and chat to colleagues.

One finding from the survey was that a lack of exercise contributed to a stressful, unhealthy lifestyle. So Redstart set up a small exercise room with gym equipment and a garden area for relaxation at lunchtime.

"It has been interesting to see how stress is shifting," said Ms Flack.

"On the annual stress questionnaires, staff are getting lower numbers, and there are no staff leaving the school at all.

"As a head, if I have happier staff, I am less stressed."

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