Stress at 'epidemic' levels

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Teaching is not the only profession prone to high stress levels, but teachers have to recognise that they are doing an inherently stressful job.

That was one of several key messages to emerge from the conference in Stirling held by Teacher Support Scotland to showcase the research it commissioned from Glasgow University on classroom stress, revealed in The TES Scotland last week.

Almost half of nearly 500 teachers questioned believed their job was stressful, and a "resounding" nine out of 10 said the problem has become worse.

But the conference heard from Matt Jarvis, a chartered psychologist and lecturer, that there is a wider issue - "an epidemic of occupational stress". Teaching and nursing are consistently rated by the Health and Safety Executive as the most stressful professions, Mr Jarvis said.

Some experts defined stress in relation to individual characteristics such as personalities and, as one put it, "perceived pressure exceeding an ability to cope". But Mr Jarvis and others rammed home the message that the problems could be not be alleviated by tackling individuals alone.

Teaching is inherently stressful, Mr Jarvis said, and there are "systemic" factors that contribute to this. If managing stress is attempted just by focusing on individuals, they will feel they are shouldering all the responsibility and therefore are being blamed.

Mr Jarvis acknowledged that, if consultants are brought into education authorities to investigate what policies add to stress, this can be threatening -a view confirmed by Hamish Vernal, director of education in Aberdeenshire which has a policy commitment to stress management programmes (TESS, September 3).

But Mr Jarvis said it was essential to do this if councils were to take a systemic approach.

He was supported by Carol Lynch, managing director of Worklife Support, a consultancy which focuses on improving the well-being of staff as a means of enhancing the performance of organisations, including more than 1,000 schools in the UK.

One initiative in England drew the comment from Ofsted inspectors: "If it hadn't been for the well-being programme, this school would be in special measures" - the system of intensive care south of the border for schools considered to be "failing".

The conference also heard figures from the head of the Teacher Support Network south of the border, which reinforce the perception of Scottish teachers that the problem is getting worse.

Patrick Nash, the network's chief executive, disclosed that its special helpline was used by 110,000 teachers in five years - an average of 5 per cent of teachers a year in England and Wales. But in the past school session, the figure has shot up to 8.5 per cent.

Three-fifths of those driven to use the helpline over the previous five years raised issues that were school related, around a quarter of which were to do with conflict at work and a fifth with stress and depression (overwhelmingly among the 36-49 age group). Of the conflict at work cases, three-fifths featured disputes with managers and a quarter with colleagues.

While the conference seemed at one in agreeing that individual counselling might only tackle the symptoms rather than the causes, a Strathclyde University study in 2001 did suggest that counselling can reduce symptoms of work-related stress by up to 50 per cent.

The study calculated that if just 3 per cent of teachers were entitled to counselling, reductions in absenteeism could save the taxpayer pound;13 million in sick pay.

There was a plea from the business world for employers to treat stress as part of a wider problem of mental ill-health in the workplace. Tommy MacDonald-Milner, head of occupational health at Marks and Spencer, said that the company had 70-100 cases of early retirement a year, of which 40 per cent involved mental health problems.

UK data show that one in four people will experience mental health difficulties and that these account for a quarter of all drugs prescribed by the NHS. "This is a common problem and employers have a responsibility to act," Mr MacDonald-Milner declared.

Marks and Spencer had taken action initially by targeting its 3,000 front-line section managers. "Their ability to manage pressure has a significant effect on their staff and the business," Mr MacDonald-Milner said.

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