Pressure and Prozac

7th November 1997 at 00:00
A lot of people might envy retired headteacher Ted Winfield his lifestyle. In a house overlooking the Downs near Winchester he divides his time between walking his dog, restoring a classic sports car and studying for a PhD. He has every appearance of a man at ease with himself.

Three years ago, Mr Winfield was head of a large outer-urban primary school in Hampshire. Then he quit. The official version put his early retirement down to ill-health, the euphemism increasingly used for stress.

He is now trying to come to terms with a job which he believes almost destroyed him. The research thesis for his doctorate is on stress among primary heads. He has surveyed 180 Hampshire primary heads - a third of the county's total - and he reckons around 40 per cent of headteachers in his sample are affected by stress.

A certain amount of stress is essential to perform well in any job. But beyond a certain level it is destructive; psychologists talk of distress or over-stress. The signs are clear: anxiety, forgetfulness, lack of concentration, inability to sleep, and constant exhaustion.

A stressed head can have a devastating effect on school management and morale. "Stressed-out heads lose their judgment," Ted Winfield says. "They blow things up out of all proportion; they are irrational. And when the pressure gets too great they cave in; they cannot find the motivation to do anything, things get shoved on one side, long-term planning goes by the board.

"The typical stressed head works excessively long hours but doesn't get anything done. It's like your mind says you can't deal with any more."

Most heads will do anything they can to keep going and remain in post. Ten per cent of Ted Winfield's sample group of headteachers are taking prescribed anti-depressants or sedatives, most commonly Prozac.

But keeping going can have a damaging effect on a head's family life. One Hampshire primary head who took part in the survey admits: "I was always irritable, constantly tired. I wasn't able to spend quality time with my children. I've known heads whose marriages have gone down the tubes because of what the job does. It's a lonely, isolating role."

Ted Winfield says: "Heads will rarely admit to themselves or other heads that they are suffering. They do not recognise how stressed they are until they crack up." Or, more likely, until the local authority sends in an inspection team to carry out a management review. "At this point the LEA will often lean on a head and suggest early retirement."

The introduction of local management destroyed some of the traditional support networks, Ted Winfield says. "Hampshire used to have local education officers whose full-time role was to support heads. They have been axed. The authority used to have advisers and inspectors, but they are all contracted to do OFSTED inspections. There is no one that a head can ring up and talk to for advice without someone saying, 'That'll be Pounds 36 an hour'."

In fact Hampshire has now reintroduced area education officers and allocated inspectors to support heads. It has also arranged 24-hour stress-counselling.

Ted Winfield says: "There are too many stressors in this job, all producing adrenaline.You never seem to come down from the high. It is not the type of problems heads are dealing with; it is the sheer number and speed of the decisions that have to be taken."

He doubts that the new headteacher qualification will prepare teachers for the responsibilities of headship. Heads need to be taught to recognise stress and its causes as well as strategies for coping, he believes. "Stress is not covered by management training. Heads are taught how to manage staff and budgets, but not how to manage themselves."

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