Safety tsar gives stress advice

28th March 2008 at 00:00

Stress is one of the most serious issues facing schools today and teachers must unite to overcome it.

Judith Hackitt, Whitehall's top safety adviser, said that, with nearly half a million days lost to stress last year, teachers and heads needed to work together to tackle the causes.

"Managing stress is not something that management can do alone," she said. "It needs active involvement from all staff to find solutions, as well as to identify where there are problems. We must learn from each other and find practical solutions. Reams of paperwork are rarely the way."

She added that the best way to prevent stress was to recognise early warning signs, such as deteriorating workplace relationships, irritability, indecisiveness and absenteeism.

Mrs Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Commission, was speaking in response to a teachers' union study which found that 69 per cent of staff have suffered work-related stress in the past two years.

Long hours were found to be the biggest cause, with poor work environments and inspections the next most serious problems.

Nearly one in six respondents to the NASUWT survey of 1,400 teachers said they had been physically assaulted by a pupil, but the study found that employers were failing to take action.

Mrs Hackitt told a fringe meeting at the NASUWT conference in Birmingham that the study raised "very, very serious concerns".

"Increasingly, I think people are coming to recognise that stress is a genuine health problem," she said. "It causes other problems, both for teachers' health and safety."

Miriam Moffat, a 45-year-old secondary science teacher in north London, was signed off work for three months after a 14-year-old boy hauled her across a table.

"I train in a body builders' gym and I'm eleven and a half stone, but the strength and aggression made it a very traumatic incident," she said.

After the attack, Mrs Moffat was so stressed that, on her doctor's advice, she took three months off.

"I felt suicidal. I felt exhausted all the time, to the extent that getting out of bed and going to the bathroom was a mammoth task."

Her school, like many others, has no stress management policy. Now she is back at work, she has to monitor herself for early warning signs.

A Cambridge University study, published at the National Union of Teachers conference in Manchester this week, said that reforms had not improved work-life balance.

Sasha Elliott, a 29-year-old London primary teacher, said a culture of presenteeism (persistent working of long hours) and the vast size of the primary national strategy contributed to stressful overwork in primary schools. But with supportive leadership, teachers could learn to say "no". At her school, the head sent all staff home at 5.30pm.

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, said stress was responsible for mental illness in about 20,000 teachers.

Easter conferences, pages 6-7.

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