Pushed to the edge

19th March 2004 at 00:00
More teachers are turning to counselling to cope with job pressures. Will Sillitoe reports on the alarming rise in stress-related illness

Sarah, a newly qualified teacher at a London secondary school, began to experience severe stress levels at work just two months into her induction year. With Years 10 and 11 coursework piling up, two year groups' reports to write and a parents' evening to attend, things were getting too much.

The thought of turning to colleagues for help actually added to her stress load. "People warned me about the threat of stress," she says. "Other teachers knew what I was going through but they seemed so in control that I felt I ought to be too. No one had the time to chat, and I felt I had no support."

Nervous about taking her problems to her head of department, Sarah started to question whether she was cut out for teaching. Then she saw adverts for the Teacher Support Line's confidential phone counselling service in The TES.

"I remember the relief of offloading what I wanted to say. It all just tumbled out. Talking things through made me see I couldn't do it all - get enough sleep and be a brilliant classroom teacher at the same time. I was encouraged to realise that colleagues at school aren't mind- readers; they may simply not want to interfere and that sometimes I need to go to them and ask for assistance."

Sarah (not her real name) is not the only one feeling the pressure. Work worries are causing more teachers to seek counselling than any other occupational group, according to the Teacher Support Line. Launched in 1999 by the Teacher Support Network, a charity, it received more than 14,000 phone calls last year, and a similar number of people used its online services: 78 per cent of enquiries were about problems at work and 22 per cent of these were prompted by teachers feeling stressed, anxious and depressed. Overall, the proportion of teachers ringing the support line about the stresses of school have risen by 11 per cent since 2000.

Counselling offered Sarah, 25, a fresh perspective on her situation and encouraged her to re-evaluate her assumptions about work. "I would feel guilty if I did something in the evening unrelated to school. I stopped doing things such as going to a movie or doing yoga - even taking a break or eating a meal! If I wasn't saving energy for teaching, then I felt I should be working. But breaks are beneficial and I learnt not to feel guilty; that your class won't die if you watch a film one night.

"I would wake up on Saturday with school on my mind and would try hard to banish it. But I was encouraged to see that it may be better to do some work while I was thinking about school and put the energy spent worrying into working - then draw a line."

In 2000, a Health and Safety Executive report put teachers at the top of the stress league tables. Based on a survey of 17,000 people, it found 41.5 per cent of teachers reporting high stress, followed by nurses (31.8 per cent) and managers (27.8 per cent). The report's authors emphasise high stress is not an automatic consequence of doing a particular job. But, added to Department for Education and Skills statistics on sickness among teachers (57 per cent, or 293,200 staff, rang in sick in 2002), it all adds up to an unpleasant picture for cash-strapped schools struggling to reduce their supply costs and create a better work-life balance for teachers.

Moreover, regulations introduced in 1999 mean employers are legally responsible for assessing the health and safety risks of their employees - including stress. Workplace stress counselling is seen by some as the way forward - and could pay for itself. One estimate suggests it could save between pound;6 million and pound;13m a year in reduced teacher absence.

Improvements to the health and morale of teachers could also promote staff retention.

Some local education authorities have taken this up by establishing schemes that offer confidential counselling. But this falls far short of the national counselling service advocated by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Philip Hodson, the association's spokesman, believes counselling should be regulated by law to ensure all practitioners have the accredited skills to tackle stress effectively, and that all counselling should be backed up by a proper referral service. "Pressure is good, but stress is bad," he says.

"A life without pressure is death, but stress is the downside of the curve.

"When you spend more time worrying about a job than doing it, things can end up with burn-out, a breakdown or even suicide. Many of us do too much and function incompetently.

"We do not understand the need to rely on the regular rhythmical processes of the body. We should have eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours play - but instead, we are left with 11 hours of work and the rest is chaos."

Two phone counselling sessions and two months later Sarah is still doing her job but feeling much more confident and positive. She would like to see more counselling offered in the workplace, especially to supplement the mentoring support offered to NQTs. She also feels professional workplace counsellors are needed to mediate in conflicts between colleagues or with managers. "Teachers need more encouragement to know that support is out there," she says.

Teacher Support Line: 08000 562 561; www.teachersupport.info

Stress points

* The average teacher took 5.3 days off sick in 2002

* Stressed workers are 25 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack and 50 per cent more prone to fatal strokes

* Teacher absenteeism costs the UK economy approximately pound;368 million each year

* Supporters of workplace counselling claim it would save between pound;6.6m and pound;13.2m a year in salaries paid to absent staff

* Around 500,000 people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill

* Up to 5 million people in the UK feel "very" or "extremely" stressed by their work

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