Never forget there's life beyond work

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Many teachers who complain of stress at work are probably suffering from a different complaint without realising it. They blame work - how much there is, the excessive and unreasonable demands of colleagues or managers - but they are, in fact, suffering from "work dependency". This is a new term favoured by many occupational psychologists to describe someone who prefers to be at work because it is a crutch that shores up the parts of their emotional and personal lives which are not going well.

For the work-dependent, job satisfaction is more important than any derived from home life. They can suffer from stress-induced illnesses, chronic fatigue, increased levels of anxiety and substance abuse. Current estimates are that one in four of the working population suffers from work dependency and, given the commitment the profession demands, it is likely to be much more prevalent among teachers.

A work-dependent differs from a work enthusiast, who is someone highly involved in his or her job, but who doesn't have an internal "drive" to work or suffer the same dissatisfaction when things go badly. People who become emotionally dependent on their jobs usually feel a strong need to prove themselves; they suffer from low self-worth and insecurity.

Albert Ellis, the American founder of cognitive therapy - one of the main therapies used in the treatment of work dependency - believes that people hold several key irrational beliefs, which cause neurotic suffering. One of these is that we must "impress, live up to the expectations of, and outdo the performances of other people". From this irrational belief, people develop an intense drive for perfection and approval from others, one of the defining characteristics of work dependency.

A work-dependent's devotion often leads to promotion and a higher salary, rewards that perpetuate the problem. To complicate matters, in a sphere such as education which is underfunded and, some say, chaotically managed, employers may seek out the work-dependent to get more hours for the same pay. This attitude reconfirms to the work dependent that long hours are the only way to ensure job marketability, reinforcing his or her conditioned cycle of thinking, feeling, and behaviour.

Substitution is a key treatment technique. This counteracts the tendency of work dependents to take on more by forbidding any new tasks until they get rid of another responsibility. Following this rule gives a structured context in which to maintain a balanced working life.

People who are work-dependent have difficulty setting boundaries. For example, teachers should try leaving their jobs after an eight-hour day, even if their tasks are not finished. They must follow this strictly and ensure that any planning tasks fits within this schedule. They should set a reasonable and achievable workload target.

Therapy with work-dependents is about helping them to see that work is only a part and not the only component of life; life is still worthy and meaningful even if you devote less time to work. To accept this they must be less judgmental about themselves.

Teachers need to accept the consequences of their endeavours. Whenever they are judged in any way at school, they need to peacefully accept it. They need to embrace the cognitive therapy view that "doing is more important than doing well".

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99.

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