Stress on happiness

27th October 2000 at 01:00
A pioneering project to enhance teachers' self-esteem could soon spread nationwide, reports Stephanie Northen

A colleague is fed up. Her problems flap inside her head like wild birds in a cage. She has thought nothing constructive for days now. She gets like this once in a while and everyone recognises the signs. They begin to feel anxious, too. Then they start avoiding her in the staffroom.

"Stress is a communicable disease," says Ray Rumsby, manager of the Norfolk Well-being project. "Too many times people state what a problem is in glorious technicolour, then they go away and worry about it. Anxieties and worries are unavoidable, but some people cope better than others and we should learn from them."

Norfolk decided to do just that back in 1996. The county council surveyed all its employees to find out how they felt about their work and the answers uncovered alarming stresses and strains, particularly among the 11,500 people who worked in education - 7,500 of whom were teachers. The key issues were workload, not knowing where to go for help and a lack of coping strategies. While Norfolk has a confidential helpline, research revealed that people used it as a last resort, preferring to turn to cigarettes and alcohol before picking up the phone. The council realised it should be offering them something more positive.

That something turned out to be the Well-being project, supported and financed by the county, the Health and Safety Executive and the Teacher Support Network, formerly the Teachers' Benevolent Fund. The union-funded TBF, which earlier this year reported that 200,000 teachers had suffered from stress at work, helped to design the project and contributed pound;50,000 of the pound;167,000 start-up cash. Eighty schools and six local authority departments have signed up to Well-being, which aims to create healthy institutions staffed by happy people.

According to Ray Rumsby, the "blame culture" must be replaced by an agreement to solve problems together. People should "take responsibility for their own well-being", he says. They need to "learn to play a positive tape not a negative tape in their heads".

Teachers do feel positive about many aspects of their work, says Mr Rumsby. He stresses their sense of achievement and the respect of the local community. Top of the list, though, is their depth of commitment to the job. "Education is not run on resources, it is run on commitment, and any government or council that threatens that is playing with fire."

The Well-being project concentrates on these strengths. Ray Rumsby wants teachers to be empowered to resolve workload issues and sort out staffroom conflicts. They also need to feel able to deal with change - something they say is endemic in the profession.

The problem about change is who controls it, says Mr Rumsby. "If I decide to move house, that is my decision, but if someone decides to evict me that is another matter. When changes are done to education, people do not feel in control of the exercise. All stress research indicates that high demands plus low control equals stress."

With only 1.7 full-time equivalent staff, the project - which has the backing of the teacher unions - relies on volunteers in schools. These well-being "facilitators" are given two days' training. They are shown examples of relaxation techniques, and of coping strategies. They are urged to think about health and fitness, how they use their time and ways to "work smarter not harder".

Crucially, Ray Rumsby encourages them "not to leave empathy at the staffroom door, but to use the techniques to support children with colleagues".

Imogen Parker is the Well-being facilitator at Angel Road first school in Norwich. A teacher or seven years, she says most schools need to improve communication between staff. "There is a corporate management attitude that a day's 'bonding' or 'paint-balling' will sort out the problems, and it can't. Well-being is more proactive than that. You have to persuade everybody to be part of it, slowly opening up channels for communication within and between schools.

"Well-being requires honesty, but first it requires trust - people must know they will not be blamed for saying what they think. They have to know it is safe to be honest."

Ray Rumsby says: "When you talk about transforming an organisation's culture, about winning over hearts and minds, you may be facing up to issues that go back 10, 15, or 20 years for some people. If there is a history of blame I'm not going to pretend I can just ride in like the cavalry and everything will be hunky-dory. If management is not behind this kind of development, it is far less likely to succeed."

When a school decides to join the project, all its employees are given a confidential questionnaire. Designed by teachers, heads, and a consultant from the International Stress Management Association, it acts as a snapshot diagnosis of the school's health. Staff are given two days to answer 36 questions on how they feel about themselves, their job and external forces, such as the Government, that act upon the school. The forms go to Ray Rumsby.

The anonymous answers are being turned into a valuable database. They reveal the depth of staff commitment. And they confirm the problems. Across the county, staff struggle to manage their workload or "get a life", communications within schools are not perfect, and there is a general feeling of being undervalued.

Within two months the school has its own personal diagnosis and the head is asked for a meeting. Mr Rumsby says: "We take a very un-Ofsted approach. There are no action plans. We check that people are happy and clear about what the report is saying. We talk through what might be done, but always we agree that the report's contents will be fed back to staff."

This usually happens at a staff meeting, where people decide how to keep Well-being on the agenda. Some schools have agreed a development programme involving training, some have set up a Well-being group, others have put up a Well-being noticeboard, or rewritten personnel development policies.

For Imogen Parker, the diagnosis meant she knew what staff wanted and gave her targets to put into the school's management plan. "Well-being has to be as ongoing as your school behaviour policy - constantly looked at until, slowly but surely, it becomes part of the school ethos."

The project allows schools to bid for small amounts of money to improve their working environment. It might be as simple as better soap in the toilets, says Ms Parker, although in her case it was "to get a door from our staffroom through to a little private green space, so teachers could have a bit of peace and quiet".

Another school began by removing anything that looked like work from the staffroom and putting up pictures instead. For Ray Rumsby the big question is whether the country will follow where Norfolk has led. It is on the cards as the Teacher Support Network will next month launch a consultancy team to advise local authorities on setting up and running Well-being projects.

He says:"I would love the Government to decide that the well-being of all their education staff was something worth investing in."

Norfolk Well-being project, tel: 01603 222326. The conference to launch Well-being consultancies is open to all heads and local authority personnel. It will take place on November 2 in the Midlands. Tel: 01823 358 7114

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