Taming the beast

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Teaching is stressful, but don't panic. There's always someone to talk to, says Patrick Nash

No new teacher needs to be told they are entering a stressful profession. Stress is a common feature of our fast-paced, modern lives, and it is not unusual for people from all walks of life to complain that their lives are tension-ridden. But teaching is considered to be among the most stressful jobs in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive and others, largely because of the nature of the profession.

Earlier this year, we conducted a joint survey with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Seven out of ten respondents felt their health has suffered as a result of pressures of the profession. Only 20 per cent of those questioned said that their school had a policy to deal with stress. Among this group, just 3.5 per cent believed it was "robust".

Staff absence through poor health caused by stress is highly disruptive and can damage pupils' education. High stress levels can drive teachers to leave, making the burden on others in the school even greater.

But help is available for those who realise that they need it. It is important to recognise the symptoms of stress in ourselves and others as early as possible so it can be dealt with effectively.

Knowing where to go for support is also important.

At the Teacher Support Network, we believe that schools and the government must work together to ensure teachers know about support services such as ours, and to encourage schools to develop a culture where teachers can ask for help when they need it without it being seen as a sign of weakness. Individuals can also help themselves manage their working lives to minimise common mental health problems such as stress.

Recognise the problem

The most important step is to recognise that the problem exists. Try to take a step back from your life to think about how you're feeling. If you don't have time to assess your symptoms or stress levels, you're probably stressed.

Calm down

You can learn to deal with the underlying causes of your stress - the pressures in your life and the way you react to them. If your first thought is that you don't have time to stop and review things, take a few moments to calm down.

Deal with the causes

Sometimes you will know intuitively what's making you stressed, other times it may seem like everything is going wrong and you are unable to identify the cause of your stress. Remember that stress is rarely caused by an event in itself, and more often by doubts about your ability to cope with that event. You need to be honest with yourself and face up to issues that could cause some distress.

Control your lifestyle

By making a change to your lifestyle you can assert control over your life and adjust the way you think about your situation. Small shifts can quickly free up creative energy and increase your options. Different things work for different people, but the important thing is to take action and find out what works best for you. Unfortunately, the more stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted we feel, the harder it is to be proactive.

Stress busters

- Try listing everything that's bothering you and then work out which things you can control and which you can't. Ignore those you can't influence and work on practical solutions to the others.

- Take up a physical activity. It doesn't have to be exercise - a brisk, 20-minute walk daily will give you valuable breathing space.

- Muscular tension often parallels and exacerbates mental stress. Relaxing physically at the end of the day is important and sometimes hard to do.

- Try to avoid increasing your consumption of alcohol or caffeine. Although smoking may seem to help, it really doesn't.

- Do something that forces you to think actively about something else. Meet friends, cook a meal, do a Sudoku puzzle.

- Get a good night's sleep. Relax before you go to bed to avoid lying awake and worrying.

Many teachers are inspired to work in schools by a desire to help others. While this is one reason teaching can be such a rewarding career, it can also have negative effects, such as many teachers' inability to say "no" to extra work.

For many of the teachers we speak to through our free and confidential support services, the realisation that they are allowed to say "no" can be a massive relief in itself, even if it's not a right they exercise all the time. At the very least, teachers should feel free to give "a negotiated yes", where they are willing to help out with extra work but not at all costs, and always make sure they have time to consider additional responsibilities carefully.

The passion of many teachers for their profession means that it can take over their lives. It can consume all their energies to the extent that they lose sight of the whole person. We often ask callers to list their priorities. When we ask where they stand on this list, it can cause a very dramatic awakening that they are often at the bottom or not on it at all.

Organising time seems like an obvious suggestion, but even simple changes like prioritising your tasks, making a "to do" list - which can raise your self esteem if it includes everything you do in a day - and avoiding putting things off can make a dramatic difference to your emotional wellbeing.

Make sure you take breaks during school hours and allow yourself time to forget about your job and focus on something else which you enjoy.

Patrick Nash is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network.

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