Send for the stress busters

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
"It is uncomfortable." That is the frank admission from Linda Hutt, head of South Park primary in Fraserburgh, about the stress management initiative which has just finished its first pilot phase there and at Fraserburgh Academy.

Aberdeenshire Council, well pleased with its achievements to date, now plans to extend it.

The two schools took the brave decision to face up to the fact that high stress levels among staff were impeding their work and causing health problems. They volunteered for assistance from Compass Scotland, which specialises in countering not just individual stress levels but the organisational factors which cause it.

Hamish Vernal, Aberdeenshire's director of education, acknowledged:

"Everyone was required to take a very, very close look at themselves - which can be a painful experience, for me as well."

Despite his experience in the field, Ron Cairns, Compass Scotland's boss, was taken aback by some of the findings from the initial "stress audit".

While the majority of the Fraserburgh Academy staff scored in the middle of the range in checks for mental, physical, behavioural and emotional signs of stress, four were dangerously high, at above 30.

The Compass measure is that a score of up to 10 is healthy stress, 20-30 suggests cause for concern and 30-plus is serious stress. "The point is that these four teachers were at work," Mr Cairns said. "In other organisations, you would find they wouldn't be."

He added: "Teachers appeared to be inured to levels of stress. They endured rather than enjoyed the job. If you reach that kind of saturation point, you are the last person to identify the problem."

Brian Thomson, Fraserburgh Academy's headeacher, said: "If staff had been off with stress, they wouldn't necessarily cite that as the reason."

A second stress audit was undertaken following action in the schools which returned considerably lower figures. Only one clinically high score, of 31, was found.

Both schools started by acknowledging there was a problem. Mr Thomson, however, had the advantage of being a new head. "That made me think of the issues in a slightly different way than would have been the case if I had been here for some time."

He said the issues staff had raised confirmed those that had featured in the school's development plan audit. "The consistency between the two and the validation from an outside source gave us the impetus to go forward," he said.

The senior management team then had to acknowledge that some staff had made "fair comment" in their analysis of what the school had to do to improve.

This included better teamwork, overcoming irritation caused by different messages being received, the need to make policy implementation more effective, enhancing communications within the school and providing more opportunities for feedback.

"We accepted we had to give a lead, taking on board the issues that had been raised," Mr Thomson said. "There has now been a significant shift in the way we operate."

He cited better teamwork and more consistency in decision-making. The school has set up focus groups, a communication group, staff briefings and coaching sessions to define the role of teachers, principal teachers and the senior management team.

"The feeling among the staff was that they were up for it because they realised that the school had to move forward," Mr Thomson said. "People accept and believe it will make a difference to the school. So there is a commitment to it."

Fraserburgh Academy set itself six aims to deliver on the findings of the stress audit. Most will be familiar to any school attempting to give itself a makeover - promoting positive behaviour and cutting back on absenteeism among pupils, giving staff "ownership" of decisions, establishing ethos indicators to measure progress, improving the fabric of the building, making changes to the curriculum and ensuring high expectations among pupils.

Mr Vernal said the aim was to "create a good ethos and a good culture and make sure we have got places where people are happy to go to their work. We simply used stress as a starting point."

At South Park primary, 15 per cent of staff were above accepted stress levels; 10 per cent were below. "The big difference between us and the Academy," Ms Hutt said, "is that workload and stress go together in primary: the workload is huge and the rate of change is huge. So we have got to get better at managing change and not be reactive.

"Teachers also have to get better at managing their own workloads. Teamwork is one way forward, with non-teaching staff helping teachers, for example."

Ms Hutt said the biggest difference since the initiative began is that staff are more involved in decisions and are taking ownership of them. As at Fraserburgh Academy, the importance of communication within the school emerged as a major issue.

Some pressure in the workplace has little to do with the actual work and more to do with how that work is conducted, the Compass report to Aberdeenshire stated. "It is these unnecessary sources of pressure that must be eliminated if stress is to be permanently reduced."

Mr Vernal said the council had taken on board the message that "palliative" measures to deal with stress after it has happened are no longer good enough. "We have got to deal with the organisational issues that are likely to lead to clinical levels of stress. The approach has to be preventative."

Aberdeenshire is also anxious that the initiative is not to be a mechanism for schools which are seen as having problems. "What we want is for schools to be able to call on a trained cadre of professionals from across the council," Mr Vernal said. "Stress management should be regarded as having potential for all schools."

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