Stress levels hit danger point

15th December 2000 at 00:00
PRIMARY school staff suffer from higher stress levels caused by bullying and harassment than their secondary colleagues, a pilot welfare scheme in West Dunbartonshire was told.

The findings persuaded the council's education committee on Wednesday to create a permanent welfare service for teachers. Failure to do so "would undoubtedly cause a void which would be very difficult or impossible to fill", officials reported to the committee.

The local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland has expressed alarm over the figures and fears they could be the tip of an iceberg. The union also called for an attack on the causes of teacher stress, not only on the effects.

During the nine-month pilot 69 referrals from nursery, primary, secondary and special needs teachers were dealt with by Margaret McKay, the welfare officer, who had been seconded from her post as head of Renton primary. This figure represented almost 4 per cent of the authority's teaching force.

Bob Cook, head of educational resources and development, says this is "testimony to the credibility of the service in the eyes of the teaching profession and a pointer to the levels of stress beng experienced". Some 64 referrals came from women, and 33 of those were from the primary sector.

Mr Cook said: "Perhaps women suffer more from stress or, more probably, women are more likely to discuss problems of an emotional nature while men are more likely to bottle up such feelings and associate them with admissions of weakness or inadequacy"

There were only 13 referrals from secondary classroom teachers. The major reason for self-referrals was anxiety or stress and most of them were from teachers between the ages of 40 and 50. A "small but significant number of staff" regarded themselves as being victims of workplace bullying. Many expressed concern that it was difficult to make a complaint mostly out of fear of reprisal but also because their career prospects might be jeopardised.

Ms McKay said many had been suffering stress-related illnesses for some time. "It takes a lot of courage for teachers to come forward and discuss professional personal problems which affect their ability to do their job."

Glenise Borthwick, the local EIS convener, disclosed that most of the stress-related calls received by the union came from primary school staff. She said that an atmosphere of constant change was particularly difficult for primary teachers who are working longer hours just to keep up.

"We are also worried that some staff are suffering from tactics that are meant to be firm management but are translated into harassment and bullying," Ms Borthwick said.

She felt the West Dunbartonshire figures did not represent the full extent of the problem. "For every teacher that contacted the welfare officer for help, there will be many more who try to cope or end up taking time off work to escape from the pressures. We are seeing only a small percentage of teachers who call out for help compared with the total number who really need it."

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