Stressed to the limit

11th June 2004 at 01:00
More teachers are going sick because of the pressures of the job. They might do better to share their problems in the staffroom. Jill Parkin reports

You've just had time off work because you've been feeling stressed. It's happened before and you know your headteacher and pupils' parents are annoyed about it. The trouble is, things never get better in your school and it's only a matter of time before it happens again.

There are two things you can do. Plunge right back in and hope there's a school holiday coming up the next time you find yourself tearful or unable to sleep. Or you can go back determined to change your working life.

Stress is a personal thing - a sign that you feel you can't cope with the demands on you. Because of that, unless you're working in a truly callous institution, the whole solution can't be found by your employer - however willing to change. At least some of it has to come from you.

How do you know if you're stressed? The Teacher Support Network, a charity that provides emotional and practical support, offers an online assessment that will help you identify your levels and then develop strategies for coping.

Signs to look out for are:

* Smoking and drinking more - too much alcohol and caffeine is not good for you and exacerbates the problem.

* Eating more convenience food and hardly ever cooking - a healthy diet and time to enjoy your food is important.

* Poor timekeeping, becoming more accident prone, losing your temper.

* Being irritable and withdrawn, causing problems in relationships.

* Forgetfulness and poor concentration.

* Poor sleep.

* Headaches and greater susceptibility to viruses.

Tom Lewis, a former deputy head, now information services manager of the network, says a good measure is to assess the gap between your life as it is and as you would like it to be. "It sometimes helps to look at what has gone out of your life. If you identify what you've lost, you can work out how to put it back," he says. "Stressed teachers need to do their best to change things. Just having a rest is no good if you're going back to the same demands.

"Many teachers who've been off with stress don't realise that a phased return to work may be possible. It's always a good idea to talk to your head of department or your head and see what support can be put in place for your return. It may be as simple as a short weekly chat to find out how things are going, just to prevent that silence of despair descending again.

"Remember, teachers have a tendency to say 'Yes', when they should really say 'I'll get back to you on that'."

But it may well be that your school management could do a lot to ease stress at your school. If so, it's worth sitting down with your union rep and looking at these areas: workload, communication, trust, openness. If you feel something could be done to improve any of these, the two of you should approach the head for a meeting about organisational issues.

Official provisional figures released last month show that an estimated 298,000 full-time or part-time teachers took sickness absence in 2003. That was up from 293,400 in 2002 but the percentage of the workforce is the same - about 57 per cent - because of greater recruitment into the profession.

On average, those who went sick took 9.6 days off, up from 9.3 last year but less than the 2001 peak of 10 days. And a lot of that is down to stress.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress is the most common reason for employees in this country taking time off work. An HSE survey found that about 45 per cent of teachers consider themselves "highly stressed". The Teacher Support Network says that teacher absenteeism costs pound;368 million a year. Around a quarter of calls to its helpline are about stress, anxiety or depression. That means you are not alone. At least some of your colleagues are likely to be feeling stressed too. So there is an in-school source of support.

"Staffrooms these days are more like railway stations," says Tom Lewis.

"People dash in, grab their sandwich and a coffee and take it back to the classroom so they can work. Make a point of being in the staffroom - suggest having a coffee with someone else."

That way you might find there is common ground. Perhaps you can formulate an approach to the management about any systemic causes of stress. You might also have a good laugh - a great stress reliever.

There are lots of external causes of stress: constant government changes and initiatives; the workload unevenly spread throughout the year; pupil behaviour; shortage of non-contact time; and the perception that schools should put right all society's wrongs.

Sometimes the solution is in your hands. Jen Nash had a close encounter with the problem, although it was not her own. Her husband became head of a large newly amalgamated primary school in West Yorkshire after spending five years in a small school he loved.

"He felt he had to do it all," she says. "He was constantly saying 'Yes' to the demands of the job, instead of delegating. He plunged in and never took the time to put systems in place.

"His sleep was badly affected and one Friday night when he was driving home from school at about 9pm, the police stopped him. They assumed he was drunk because he was weaving about the road, but actually, he was just trying to stay awake.

"It really pulled him up short. He spent a lot of time that night crying.

The next Monday he spoke to an LEA adviser and they released another head to work alongside him for the rest of that term, setting things up. If he hadn't asked for help, he'd have been out of teaching."

Teacher Support Network

Worklife Support Well-Being Programme

Teacher Support Line: 0800 056 2561 (England); 0800 085 5088 (Wales)


* Manage workload and time off.

* Review your timing - the same task might take one or three hours.

Sometimes good enough is good enough. Learn to trust yourself and establish realistic time boundaries.

* Take breaks - the staffroom can be a source of support professionally and socially. Laughter is great anti-stress medicine.

* Don't stay late and take work home - it should be one or the other. Set a limit on how late you will work at home. Don't work until bedtime.

* Give yourself time to think. It's OK to say "No". Ask for time to consider a request, think of the consequences, be prepared to negotiate:

"Doing this will affect the deadline for the task you gave me earlier." You don't have to reinvent the wheel - you should have access to past schemes of work and lesson plans. Ask the curriculum specialist for advice. The web is good for finding resources.

* Ask for help - isolation speeds up burn-out. If things are bad, share your miseries with friends. Talk to your head. Create a group or find a counsellor.

* Make time during the week for you and your family - maintain interests and friends. Exercise and allow time to relax.

* Work out what helps you relax - for some, it's lying on the sofa with music playing and eyes closed. Others need to participate - whether it's a computer game or sport. Some like specific relaxation techniques and tapes.

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