Take 20 minutes just for yourself

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Stress can lead to illness, which means management headaches, so it makes sense to help staff to relax. Providing massage is one way, writes Douglas Blane

When school managers say they have taken action to improve the care and welfare of their teachers, massage is not the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps it should be.

Nearly two-thirds of the 130 staff at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, now have their accumulated stress soothed away each week by the gentle ministrations of massage therapist Shona Campbell.

The effects, say the teachers, are wonderful. "It makes you feel great," says English teacher Janette Morrison, "and gives you time to switch off and have someone look after you. It maybe sounds selfish, but the rest of the day you're so busy and focused on other people, demanding children and paperwork, that to do nothing and just feel the tension being taken out of you is tremendous."

"You are so relaxed afterwards," says computing teacher Elizabeth Whaite.

"I try to get a slot towards the end of the day because it's a lovely way to wind down and the effect lasts for two or three days.

"But it's not just the massage. The therapist also talks to us about nutrition and gives us exercises to ease tension in the neck and shoulders.

That makes you conscious during the day of how you are sitting, standing and working at the computer."

Hermitage Academy provides a quiet room for the teachers and support staff to visit Ms Campbell, while she provides the massage chair, soothing music and the expertise. The pound;450 chair, with supports for knees, arms, head and bottom, combines comfort with utility, allowing the client to relax while the therapist's thumbs persuade knotted muscles in the neck, back and shoulders to relax.

"Some people who have been working at computers for years can hardly move their heads," says Ms Campbell, "but after just one session they feel the tension easing away."

The physical benefits of massage are just part of the reason why the staff come back week after week. The undivided attention, even for just 20 minutes, of someone who is interested in their health and happiness is a very appealing and therapeutic aspect of the experience.

"I ask the teachers about hobbies, eating and sleeping patterns, how they relax, what exercise they take, whether they drink or smoke. That lets me build up a full picture and take a holistic approach. For me that is the key: taking a holistic approach to life and getting a balance between work, exercise and relaxation."

One reason for this focus on the individual, explains Ms Campbell, is that although the therapy seems gentle, it can have profound effects on the body.

"Massage releases toxins from the muscles into the blood, which is why I tell people to drink plenty of water afterwards.

"If someone has heart problems, high blood pressure or kidney trouble, I will ask them to consult their doctors first."

Providing massage in school is not entirely altruistic, says depute headteacher Ronnie Summers, who now has regular massages himself. "Quite a lot of teachers get illnesses caused by stress built up over a period of time. So, anything we can do to stop that happening, to keep them healthy and in school, is in the best interests of the pupils as well as the teachers."

Ms Campbell studied for a therapeutic massage qualification and set up in business just over a year ago. Formerly employed in a financial institution, she describes the first year of self-employment as "character building". Her client base has grown rapidly: she currently visits seven schools, a nursery and several businesses.

"One of the things I enjoy most about my work is getting to hear what people would really like to do with their lives. If they are not happy and there's something they would much rather be doing, my advice is to think about making the change," she says.

Given the widespread perception that teachers are overworked, and unhappy, does this mean that her school clients will be resigning in droves? Not at all, she says. "By far the majority of the teachers I see tell me their job is very stressful but they love it."

Massages for teachers pound;8 each. Shona Campbell, tel 01475 637581 scotia.campbell@btopenworld.com

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