Susannah Kirkman on how one head keeps morale high by quizzing staff about stress levels
Teachers are at the top of the occupational stress league and the few weeks before Christmas rate as the most stressful of the year. Illness, festive activities for pupils and a 15-week term all take their toll.
It is at this most pressured time that Huntington school in York gauges the effects of stress on staff, through a survey. Each year its uses the responses to introduce anti-stress measures - an exercise that has had dramatic results.
Since the annual survey was introduced three years ago, staff turnover and sickness rates have both fallen sharply. Chris Bridge, head of the 11-to-18 comprehensive, says that the impetus behind the first questionnaire was a big rise in the number of staff resignations.
"A rapid changeover in staff is stressful for the whole organisation," he said. "We needed to find out what was causing it." There are huge incentives for schools like Huntington to tackle stress head-on. Employers who ignore workers' complaints about stress levels could face compensation awards costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The Health and Safety Executive is also taking a harder line on workplace stress. This year it issued its first improvement notice on stress grounds, giving West Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust until December 15 to reduce doctors' and other employees' stress levels or face court action and an unlimited fine.
The West Dorset improvement notice was triggered after an anonymous complaint to the HSE by a member of staff, and the HSE is now urging teachers who feel that their employers are not acting to reduce stress to come forward.
The Huntington survey is one way to uncover stress before it reaches crisis level.
Mr Bridge says: "Some pressure is good. It often brings out the best in people. Stress happens when people can no longer cope with the pressure."
Huntington's staff are asked to rank 20 causes of stress in the school. A working group of managers and representatives from teaching and non-teaching staff then analyses the results. Finally, potential solutions are built into the school development plan.
Last year, the bad behaviour of a small minority of pupils was rated the most stressful problem. In response, senior staff looked at new ways of managing behaviour. The school also decided to increase the number of exclusions for pupils who would not respond, despite being offered extra help.
"Using exclusion more often has been a major stress reliever," explains Mr Bridge. "Teachers need a break and so do the other pupils, who don't like their work being continually interrupted."
Finding time for marking was another bugbear. The solution was to adopt a range of new assessment techniques, including peer assessment and self-assessment by pupils.
The staff's administrative workload has already been slashed following the results of the first stress survey. The school office now has responsibility for compiling all reports, as well as attendance and progress statistics. Specific departments have their own administrative assistants and the job of co-ordinating exams has been given to a non-teaching member of staff.
Half of the special needs co-ordinator's work is now carried out by an administrator.
However, some causes of stress are more difficult to tackle. Recently, staff said that it was difficult to find time for a social life during term - and that half-terms were not long enough to recover. Mr Bridge is trying to convince York education authority to opt for a five-term year, with longer half-term breaks.
The most intractable problem is external pressure from the Department for Education and Skills to improve results. Mr Bridge admits that the huge number of targets do not make teachers' lives any easier, but he says that staff at least blame the Government and not him.
Naturally, the survey is not the only way to measure stress. Senior managers closely monitor sickness rates and stress-related absence, and Mr Bridge still uses the hands-on approach as well as the survey.
"When you walk round the school, you can sense it. You notice if someone is white with tiredness or always walks with their head down."
The HSE's stress team is looking for case studies of teachers who have suffered workplace stress, and of schools who have adopted anti-stress policies, telephone 020 7717 6000. Real Solutions, Real People: A Manager's Guide to Tackling Work-Related Stress, price pound;20, is available from HSE books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2WA, telephone 01787 881165, see www.hse.gov.ukstress
Stress: what employers must do...
1. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess risks to health and safety from the hazards at work. This includes the risk of employees developing stress-related illness caused by their work.
2. A ruling by the Court of Appeal involving claims by two teachers for stress-related damages said there were five key actions employers can take to reduce the risk of court action:
* be aware of the warning signs - high absence levels, personal vulnerabilities - and take positive action;
* take employees' complaints about stress levels seriously, treat them sympathetically and investigate their concerns;
* consider whether the employee has an excessive workload compared with others at the same level;
* take "reasonable" steps to address a problem. A small school, for instance, may have fewer options and resources;
* offer a confidential advice service with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment - an employer providing this is unlikely to be found negligent.