Zen and the art of self maintenance

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Do ill health and teaching go hand in hand? Or can you rise above the angst through positive thinking? Hannah Frankel investigates.

You ache all over; you feel tired, run down and stressed. No, you are not coming down with flu - you are a teacher. With almost 2,000 people contacting the Teacher Support Network (TSN) with health and wellbeing concerns over the past year, illness appears rife within the profession. Is it just an unfortunate coincidence or is teaching actually bad for your health?

The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) latest report on work-related illness suggests that the job is taking its toll. It found that approximately 119,000 people working in education suffer from ill health that is either caused or made worse by their job. Last year's data indicates that 2.5 million days were lost in the sector due to work-related illness or injury. That's an estimated 1.4 days off per worker.

There were 1,132 major injuries reported last year - usually a "slip or trip" but 10 per cent due to a "moving or falling object".

Violent assault led to longer absences, usually of three days or more. Death, however, remained reassuringly rare. In 200607, there were "only" two fatal teacher injuries, involving drowning and asphyxiation. But the major source of angst, as confirmed by reports to teacher unions, is stress, most commonly caused by excessive workload or bullying.

Chris Rowe, head of the HSE's stress management programme, says education is one of the five most stressful sectors in the UK, alongside health, local and central government and finance. "Stress is not a medical condition, but it can become a problem in response to excessive pressure," he says. "Good stress management is really just good management. It is preventable, but only through a whole-school approach, with real commitment from the top."

Stress is compounded when workload increases as personal control and support slips, the HSE believes. Strained relationships and poorly managed change will further exacerbate the problem.

Tom Lewis has been working as a counsellor for the TSN since 1999. The majority of calls he receives are from teachers who struggle to cope with workload, discipline, adult relationships or new initiatives.

"Teachers generally recognise that pressure is a part of life, but if stress is prolonged or continuous it may impact on health and wellbeing," he says. "There's often a 'conspiracy of silence' that prevents teachers from discussing their problems in case it affects their prospects. Schools must foster an environment where it's OK to talk about problems without being judged."

Simple steps can make a big difference, Tom adds. Praising achievements, acknowledging hard work, promoting reasonable hours and asking about interests outside school are all good starting points. A shift in staffroom culture is another.

"Staffrooms should be social and professional spaces where teachers can relax," says Tom, who was a primary teacher and deputy head for 16 years. "Instead they can feel like Euston station, with teachers rushing in, grabbing a drink and some photocopying, then rushing out again. Schools need to monitor and protect break times to ensure staff look after themselves."

Paul agrees it is these "additional" concerns that are the root of ill health. As a primary deputy head in North West England, he suffered frequent stomach upsets, headaches, panic attacks and insomnia as he tried to juggle his newly-diagnosed diabetes with an excessive workload.

In 2004, Paul's doctor signed him off with stress and the school moved to dismiss him on the grounds of incapacity. "I escaped via a compromise deal," says Paul, 54.

"I now work almost full time as a supply teacher. I enjoy the work and have not had a day's illness in the past three years."

The job also had a detrimental effect on the health of Rebecca, a newly qualified teacher in Buckinghamshire, and her family. Late last year, her 13-year-old daughter survived an overdose. "I don't see my children at all in the morning and don't get back until six at night," says Rebecca, who works every evening and weekend on top of 11-hour working days during the week.

"I've taken my eye off the ball and my daughter has felt neglected. It makes me angry with myself but also with a system that demands so much of me. It's inhumane and now I'm seriously considering giving up."

Other teachers have told The TES Magazine that teaching causes everything from voice damage to bugs and infections, migraines, panic attacks, low self-esteem and back pain.

Schools that take staff wellbeing seriously, however, reap rewards. Staff absences drops and pupils thrive. Instead of being bad for you, teaching can contribute to your happiness. Imagine that.

A touch of class

Bourne of frustration

Six years ago, inspectors named Bourne Community College in Emsworth, Hampshire, as a school in "challenging circumstances". Staff morale was at rock bottom, just 23 per cent of pupils were achieving five or more good GCSEs and parents were critical of the school.

The following year, the college aimed for healthy school and Investors in People status, which largely involved investing in personal and professional development. Cover supervisors were employed to protect planning and preparation time, and three full-time pupil support managers were hired to make all initial contact with parents.

"No one used to venture into the staffroom because they might be cornered into covering for someone," says Margaret Eva, headteacher. "Now the staffroom is full of dynamic teachers laughing, drinking tea and being supportive."

All staff receive a card from Margaret on their birthday and frequent letters of thanks in recognition of their hard work. They are also offered funding should they want to develop themselves professionally.

Everyone is consulted on how the school can improve teaching and learning, and they are all included in regular social events.

The college now has the highest value added score in the county, and 55 per cent of key stage 4 pupils achieved at least five A*-C grades in 2007 - more than double what it was six years ago.

"We've up-skilled and invested in all our staff, which makes them feel truly valued," says Margaret. "With all staff on board and involved, we are now focused on achieving our goals."

Teacher Support Network stats

- Over the past 12 months, 1,974 teachers contacted the Teacher Support Network with health and wellbeing concerns.

- 66 per cent were specifically about mental health issues.

- Of those, 90 per cent were regarding stress, depression or anxiety.

- There were 161 physical health concerns.

- Of those, 49 referred to chronic illnesses such as cancer or heart disease. Other concerns ranged from "exercise, diet and wellbeing" to injury, self-harm and insomnia.

- Visit www.teacherline.org.uk.

How to keep a healthy workforce

- Identify and recognise staff social and emotional needs.

- Consult staff on training and support.

- Ensure they know where to turn for occupational health advice and support.

- Involve staff in decision-making that affects them.

- Ensure behaviour management policy is clear, consistent and adhered to.

- Survey staff regularly to assess levels of wellbeing and satisfaction. Then act on it.

- Visit www.healthyschools.gov.uk

Source: The National Healthy Schools Programme.

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