Stress busters

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Five million admit that work worries make them ill, and schools are worst

Pressing deadlines and goals, late nights, longer and more stressful journeys to work - hardly a recipe for a healthy environment. So is it any wonder that work-related stress is always in the news? Up to 5 million people in the UK admit to feeling "very" or "extremely" stressed by their jobs, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), In response, the executive has formulated a pragmatic approach to deal with the problem. After a nine-month pilot, the HSE's Management Standards on Work-Related Stress is set to provide employers with a benchmark to gauge stress levels, identify causes and work with employees to resolve difficulties.

"Stress is the biggest cause of work-related ill health," says Elizabeth Gyngell, the executive's stress programme manager. "Management standards can help companies assess performance against six key areas that cause work-related stress." These areas - they include demand, support and relationships - are particularly relevant for education. In Ms Gyngell's words, this "is one of the worst affected areas".

Schools have already proved they are ahead of the game by taking part in the national Wellbeing Project from Worklife Support, a social enterprise formed by the Teacher Support Network. The programme works with a number of schools, usually in partnership with a local education authority, helping them to identify and make improvements to create a healthier culture and environment.

Since its launch in 1999, 1,500 schools in 45 local education authorities have been involved in the programme, which starts with a comprehensive self-review, including an online survey completed by all members of staff.

This allows schools to recognise their strengths and achievements, as well as identifying areas for development and action. The survey results are relayed to staff by a well-being co-ordinator. The school then develops an action plan. A follow-up survey a year later measures progress.

Staff at Ribby with Wrea endowed Church of England primary, Lancashire, are involved in the project for the third year running. The headteacher, Yvonne Hazelwood, says: "We were coming up to an inspection, I felt we needed to look at our work-life balance."

Feedback from questionnaires revealed that communication was an area for development. Information was often passed on by word of mouth, meaning some staff missed out. To improve this, Ms Hazelwood appointed line managers for sections such as site staff and lunchtime supervisors who now meet regularly to share information.

"We'd got to the point where there were nine teaching staff and 26 employees in support roles," she recalls. "Our involvement in the programme has helped create a culture of openness that makes all staff feel involved and valued."

At Wellfields high school in Lancashire, the headteacher, Martin Ainsworth, is also making changes as a result of his involvement with the project. The main area of focus has been improving the working environment.

With true commitment to the work-life balance, the school was closed an hour early to allow staff time to complete the questionnaires. A series of meetings were held to discuss the feedback.

"It was really positive," says Mr Ainsworth. "Some of our staff needs were easily fixed, such as new blinds for southern side of the school where the sun beats down, giving staff headaches. Others were concerned about the lack of secure storage in their classrooms, so we bought lockable cabinets.

Our cleaners asked if they could be employed by the school rather than contractors. Now we get a much better job for the same money.

Refurbishments needed more thought, but we've tried to prioritise. One teacher was delighted to have her classroom decorated - for the first time in 16 years!"

The Health and Safety Executive is also delighted. Ms Gyngell says: "The success of the programme demonstrates the merits of tackling work- related stress at an organisational level. The principle underpins the HSE management standards approach too."

In the short term, these standards are likely to remain for guidance only.

But in the long-term, they could become an Approved Code of Practice, whereby employers deemed to be failing in their duty of care towards employees may be required to justify why they are not following the code.

In the meantime, Worklife Support will continue to provide the HSE with specialist knowledge and understanding of the education sector. Carol Lynch, its managing director, says: "We are committed to staff working together to create healthy, sustainable learning and working environments.

In schools, moving towards self-evaluation the well-being programme is ahead of the game. It is wonderful to see education setting an example to other sectors."

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