Spirit measure

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Teachers are increasingly turning to alcohol rather than a hot bath or good book after a stressful day

Zoe* didn't just get drunk with her fellow teacher trainees, she got herself arrested. "Everyone got properly bladdered, but I always went one step further. I didn't know when to stop."

She was embarrassed to spend the night in a police cell, but the other students found it funny and her pupils never found out. It was one of many incidents that signalled her growing dependence on alcohol and class A drugs.

Zoe is not the only teacher to turn to substances for comfort. All the signs point to a worrying increase in stress in the profession, which is turning many to unhealthy lifestyle choices, with booze featuring heavily.

A new survey for the Government's Know Your Limits campaign has found that nearly six out of 10 education workers have turned to alcohol to relieve stress after work. Although teachers are among England's most moderate drinkers, consuming 24 units a week on average, they are among the most prone to rely on booze to unwind after a stressful day, along with journalists, builders, bankers and estate agents. More than 20 per cent of the sector's drinkers are keen to cut down on their alcohol intake, the survey added.

"My alcohol consumption is gradually increasing," one teacher reported in a recent mental health survey by Barnsley NUT. "I have taken (prescription) drugs in the past and can see I'm going the same way again. I know it's affecting my quality of life."

Another teacher was driven to a nervous breakdown because he could not keep up with the demands of the job. "I became increasingly irritable and began to drink more than I should," he says. "I couldn't sleep at night. I felt tired all the time and depressed."

Performance targets, over-detailed requests for planning and a rise in the number of classroom observations are all adding to stress levels, the Barnsley teachers reported.

Jobs that take people away from home or those that involve antisocial hours, such as fishermen or those in the entertainment industry or Navy, are typically considered high risk, says Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and author of Drinking Careers. Although teachers do not strictly fall within this category, lonely night-time marking and planning stints could make them more susceptible to alcohol abuse.

"If they are cooped up all night doing their planning and preparation, they will soon become psychologically and spatially separated from their families," says Professor Plant. "It is just as risky as being physically removed."

Long, stressful hours are also likely to lead to alcohol abuse, says Professor Plant. "I often find with teachers, their time is not their own. They spend their holidays preparing for the next term."

Workplaces with a drinking culture, easy access to alcohol or those that tolerate drinking at work usually top the drinking tables. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, publicans and bar staff are most likely to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, but a shift towards the teaching profession is beginning to emerge.

Professor Plant's observations are backed up by research. Teachers are the third most stressed workers in Britain, according to a survey by the Stroke Association last year, beaten only by those in recruitment and law.

Extreme pressure like this is often the catalyst for addiction, says Nick Barton, chief executive of Action on Addiction. "While relief may be experienced in the short term, the risk is that they may slide rapidly into dependence with all the consequential harms that brings."

H olly* had always drunk a lot, but nothing compared to the amount she consumed when she became a teacher two years ago. "Nothing matched the feeling of pouring that glass of wine when I got in from a hard day with grotty Year 10s," she says. She was soon drinking up to five bottles of wine a week. During the holidays, that could double.

One of her lowest moments was the realisation that her lesson plan for a fast-approaching observation made no sense. She had written it the night before after a bottle of wine.

Holly was never drunk in school. Instead she smoked to relieve the stress. She rarely suffered from hangovers and no one at her Midlands school noticed, but her friends and family were becoming increasingly concerned.

"I was ashamed I'd turned to the bottle to cope with stress so early in my career," she says. "I was beginning to need the drink to relax. I knew that was the beginning of big problems."

Holly cut down her intake and has drunk nothing since she got pregnant in December. She is considering staying teetotal once the baby is born. "I have just as much stress at work but I get past it in different ways: I chill out in the bath, read a book, keep a diary or talk to friends," she says.

John Illingworth knows just how far the pressures of the job can push teachers. The former headteacher from Nottingham won a standing ovation at an NUT conference in 2006 as he described his own stress-induced mental breakdown. A snapshot survey the following year of 140 teachers in Nottingham found that a third resorted to alcohol, smoking, unhealthy eating or "other substances" to help them cope.

"Stress becomes a vicious circle," he says. "You feel the pressure so you binge eat or turn to alcohol, which just makes you feel worse. Teachers often said that they couldn't wait to open a bottle of wine when they got home. They used it as a crutch."

Mr Illingworth has only once heard of a teacher drinking at work. The nature of the job makes it difficult to drink during the day, although many teachers comfort eat during breaks to deal with the stress - a trait more commonly associated with women. Instead, he believes teachers drink heavily or "binge" outside of school hours to unwind, which sometimes results in moodiness or depression the following day.

Paul* has had a drink almost every night of the week for the past three years. He makes sure he never drinks before 7pm, but then has a couple of glasses of wine plus a pint or two of lager. At weekends, he drinks more.

"I feel stressed if I know there is no alcohol in the house, because it really helps me relax in the evenings," he says. "I enjoy the taste of alcohol and the happy feeling you get. Most importantly, it helps me sleep, which I have trouble with unless I take tablets or a glass of wine. It is often difficult to switch off my brain from everything going on at school."

More than two thirds of respondents to the Barnsley NUT survey had similar sleep problems. They reported waking up in the night and not being able to sleep because they were thinking about work. Turning to alcohol is unlikely to help, though. As well as increasing the chances of needing the bathroom during the night, alcohol disturbs the brain rhythms and prevents drinkers from feeling rested and refreshed in the morning.

Findings from the Stroke Association, which surveyed more than 1,000 people, confirmed that workers in school are more likely to respond to stress by crying, eating and losing sleep. Almost 30 per cent drank more because of stress.

"Every year we come across teachers who have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism," says Julian Stanley, the chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. "Far too many teachers are experiencing difficult emotional challenges at work because of the pressures heaped upon them. Reducing this pressure is vital to helping teachers avoid the pitfalls of alcohol."

But not all drinking is directly associated with the stresses of the job. Many "social drinkers" are unaware that sharing a bottle of wine at night constitutes heavy drinking, says Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust. Women, especially, are drinking more. The proportion of females who binge drink almost doubled between 1998 and 2006.

As women make up the bulk of the school workforce, Professor Plant believes they have probably had a civilising effect on teacher drinking in the past. However, they may now be driving the alcohol culture among teachers, he adds, if not in school than after hours.

Zoe, 29, believes the school social scene influenced her habit much more than the pressures of the job. "My PGCE year was stressful, but we were all in it together," she says. "There was a really big drinking culture at university, especially in the PE department. But I'd be totally pissed before we'd even got into town. My friends would pick me off the floor and ask me why I got so drunk. I couldn't answer."

Z oe now points to her addictive personality to explain her dependency, plus the lack of jobs in southwest England. For her first year as a qualified teacher, she could only find supply work. "The uncertainty really got me down," she says. "You can't build a rapport with teachers or pupils as a supply teacher and you always feel like a bit of an outcast."

Zoe never drank at school. Instead, she took drugs and alcohol in the evenings and at weekends. If she felt too rough on Monday, she wouldn't accept the supply work. When she did teach with a hangover, she was good at covering it up.

Like Holly, no one at work noticed she had a problem. Last summer her substance abuse left her in intensive care. She was in and out of hospital for five months but turned to expert help and has been clean ever since.

"I can guarantee I won't use drugs or drink again," she says. "There was a time when I felt unemployable, but now I'm a respected and responsible member of staff. The routine and security of teaching really helps."

Zoe's experience has had some unexpectedly positive results. She can relate to hard-to-reach pupils and doesn't get as stressed as colleagues - she has been through worse and knows the consequences of "holding on" to stress or pent-up emotions.

But society as a whole continues to drink heavily and self-medicate. More than a third of adults drink more than their daily recommended limit, according to this year's data from the Office for National Statistics. Alcohol-related deaths have more than doubled since 1991.

The extent to which a problem festers at work depends on the individual's seniority, argues Professor Plant. In a study of anaesthetists, junior staff were too afraid to confront more senior colleagues about their drinking. The situation then continued unchecked. Teachers may have similar reservations about blowing the whistle on colleagues, meaning many problems remain hidden.

Ideally, headteachers will have a clear policy on managing alcohol misuse, says Ben Willmott from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. As well as clarifying that alcohol must never affect teachers' performance, attendance or behaviour, it should spell out what constitutes excessive drinking and how it affects health. "It must make it clear that support is available for people that have a dependency problem," he says.

For teachers like Holly and Zoe, their lives are more rewarding without alcohol. "My work is better, my head is clearer and I'm not scared of being `found out' anymore," says Holly.

"Although I never drank in school, or even considered entering a classroom having had a drink, I will never know how close I came to ruining my career before it even got started."

* Some names in this article have been changed




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