Many teachers will be dreading the start of another school year because by the end of the year just gone, stress had them close to collapsing point. In a survey by the NASUWT teaching union, published earlier this year, 79 per cent of teachers questioned said that they had experienced workload-related anxiety.
“Pressure is stimulating and motivating but when it exceeds your ability to cope, you experience stress,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. “The first signs you’ve crossed the line are changes in behaviour – for example, losing your sense of humour, becoming more withdrawn or more aggressive.”
A potent cocktail of factors makes it challenging to manage stress as a teacher, suggests Cooper: “Change usually causes stress and there’s constant change in teaching, as it’s a political football. Then there’s overload – teachers’ work spilling into their private lives. Finally, there’s this sense of surveillance: constantly having to show you’re meeting targets.”
While solutions to these problems are not immediately forthcoming, there are practical steps you can take to ease stress in the next 12 months so that you don’t end the coming year quite as tired out as you did this year. Here are 19 tips from some of the world’s leading experts on wellbeing.
1. Learn to say 'no' the smart way
Got heaps of marking but still find yourself agreeing to run the school fundraiser? “A good thing to have in your toolbox is a master list of all the projects you’re working on,” suggests Graham Allcott, author of How to be a Productivity Ninja. “If you get approached to do something new, show that person the list, then the conversation almost becomes, ‘You tell me what you want me to drop in order to do that’ – said, of course, in a polite way. It’s more objective, rather than saying no in the abstract, which could feel like you’re letting that person down.”
2. Curb caffeine
This won’t be popular, but experts advise that you step away from the espresso
This won’t be popular, but experts advise that you step away from the espresso. “When you’re facing something stressful, not only does your body produce cortisol, which narrows your arteries, but it also produces epinephrine, a hormone that increases heart rate,” explains leading dietician Emer Delaney, who regularly speaks to the media on behalf of the British Dietetic Association. “Put together that can lead to a panicked feeling. Caffeine won’t help because it’s a stimulant and can make you jittery. Most people can get away with one or two cups but more can leave you on edge. Try to choose herbal teas or other drinks instead. Even English breakfast tea has about a third of the caffeine of coffee.”
3. Avoid future delusion
“When they’re busy, most people get into the mindset of, ‘in two weeks, things will be quieter’. You think you can see light at the end of the tunnel, but what you don’t know yet is that the light is actually someone with a torch coming to bring you more work,” jokes Allcott. “Accept that you will never get to the end of your to-do list – and that’s OK. Don’t put your personal life on hold until you have more time, because there will never be any. Once a week, look at your calendar and schedule some personal plans, whatever else you have on, as a chance to relax.”
4. Find a co-counsellor
“Establish a good relationship with one of your colleagues so you can do what I call ‘co-counselling’,” suggests Cooper. “If you have problems at work, then there’s someone you trust who you can discuss them with. It helps that they understand the context of the school, which other friends and family might not. “Actively develop this relationship by asking a colleague you get on with if, for example, they’d like to go for a drink after school. Remember to tell them that they should feel welcome to call on you if they have an issue they would like to discuss, too.”
5. Take a power nap
“Napping is proven to be an incredibly powerful performance enhancer. It will improve your ability to manage stress if you’re tired and will mean you have more focus and attention, so you’ll be able to get jobs done efficiently, which stops stress building,” says sleep physiologist Guy Meadows, who runs programmes for organisations whose employees are struggling with shut-eye. “Some companies are now installing napping rooms, but you could even just take yourself off to the loo and lean your head against the wall for 10 minutes. Don’t go for longer than 20 minutes or you may end up in deep sleep and wake with brain fog.
“Between 12 and 3pm is the best time to nap as we have a natural lull in what are called our ‘alerting signals’ then, so it’s easier to sleep.”
6. Lower your expectations
“When researchers have looked at which countries’ populations experience the least stress, Scandinavian countries keep coming out well,” says Allcott. “A couple of studies have looked at the reasons why and one concluded that people in Denmark are happier simply because they have lower expectations. I think that’s really powerful. So take a moment to reflect: do I really want that promotion? Will £10,000 more really make me happier? Do I actually want more responsibility? Lowering your expectations of what you have to achieve in your job – and life – could really lower your stress.”
7. Eat clever carbs
What’s on your plate could help you to cope with what’s on your…er…plate. “If you face a stressor, your body increases the amount of the hormone cortisol that it produces. This prepares it for a “fight or flight” response and a huge amount of glucose [the body’s energy source] is produced to supply all your muscles, ready to fuel whatever action you need to take,” explains Delaney. “If you have enough carbohydrate in your diet, your body will use that to produce the glucose. Otherwise it will start to break down your muscle storage to get at glucose supplies there. This can leave you feeling exhausted.”
Delaney notes that nutritionists recommend about 50 per cent of your total food energy come from carbs – eating regular, balanced meals in order to keep levels topped up. But remember: not all carbs are created equal. “You want to eat ones that release energy slowly, such as wholegrain cereals, oats and rye bread. Things like white bread, cakes and biscuits will cause a quick glucose spike then a dip, leaving you lethargic.”
8. Set a night alarm
'It’s important that people make time for sleep, so try setting an alarm for when it’s time to go to bed'
“Sleep is essential for our ability to cope with stress,” says Meadows. “Neuroscientists have found there are two key parts to the brain when it comes to cognitive and emotional performance: the prefrontal cortex (responsible for rational thought and moderating emotions) and the amygdala (responsible for survival essentials, such as your “fight or flight” response).
“When we’re sleep deprived, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t work so well and there’s a lot more activity in our amygdala, which means our emotions become more base – we’re more reactive, negative and perceive events to be more stressful.”
Meadows notes that, on average, we need seven to eight hours’ sleep a night to avoid getting into this state. “It’s important that people make time for sleep, so try setting an alarm for when it’s time to go to bed,” he advises, “About 30-40 minutes before, wind down. Turn off all electronic devices, dim the lights and potter around doing some low-level activities, such as emptying the dishwasher, that don’t stimulate you.”
9. Live in the now
Mindfulness – the practice of paying attention to your present experience – can help tackle stress, according to NHS advice. On a basic level, it helps you live in the moment rather than worrying about the lesson that went badly or that stressful exam next week. The best way to get into this habit is to start small.
“You can bring mindfulness to everyday life by forming an intention to do, with awareness, something you normally do on automatic pilot,” suggests Willem Kuyken, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. “One example is mindful showering. Most people shower every day but very few are actually ‘there’ – they’re busy planning what’s happening next. Instead, try to bring full awareness to it. What does the water feel like on your skin? What does the soap smell like? This gives you some time to pause and be fully present to your experience, which can help set you up well for the rest of the day.”
10. De-stress your to-do list
“Stress can come from a lack of clarity and control. The right to-do list can help,” suggests Allcott. “Create one with three sections. One is for what I call ‘proactive attention’ – the time in your day when you’re most switched on and can do the most difficult tasks. At the other end, you have ‘inactive attention’ – when you’re knackered and can only do mindless tasks. In the middle you have your ‘active attention’ list.
“Most people only have about two to three hours of proactive attention, so it’s important that you make the most of that precious resource. For the majority, that comes some time in the morning, so perhaps you’ll decide to work through some difficult jobs in this period. Whatever you do, don’t spend that time doing ‘warm-up’ tasks, like checking emails. Save those for when you have inactive attention.”
11. Train your brain
Mindfulness can do more than provide a moment’s respite – it has the power to change how you deal with stressful situations, says Kuyken. Informal practice (as in point 9) helps, but even more effective is formal mindful meditation. “There’s now a large and growing evidence base suggesting that mindfulness-based programmes can help manage stress, and there’s even research showing it can help teachers specifically,” notes Kuyken.
A typical mindful meditation might involve focusing on your breath and, as thoughts pop into your head, taking note of them, then gently setting them aside – honing your ability to notice thoughts but not get carried away by them. “This ‘training’ makes it more likely we’ll react wisely in a stressful moment,” says Kuyken. “For example, if a child says something that might normally trigger a teacher, with mindfulness teachers can notice themselves becoming angry, stand back and not say something that they might regret.”
Mindfulness can also help you avoid ruminating on worries. As an introduction to the process, Kuyken recommends visiting the Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s YouTube channel for a three-minute guided meditation video.
12. Build resilience
Two people hit by the same stressful event can recover at different rates, depending on how resilient they are. “According to research, resilience is made up of basically four characteristics: how adaptable you are, how much you have a sense of purpose, how self-confident you are, and whether you seek social support when needed,” says Cooper. He has developed a free online test, called i-resilience, which gives you a personal report on your resilience levels. You’ll get advice on the areas that you need to work on to build your ability to bounce back.
13. Let go of what you can't control
“A lot of teachers get emotionally involved in the ‘naming and shaming’ culture around performance, worrying whether they will get the results they need,” notes Cooper. “However, there are certain circumstances they can’t control – where their school is based, who is in their class. If you can’t control something, there is nothing to be gained from worrying about it. Think about it like being on an aeroplane. The minute you get on one, you aren’t in control; worrying won’t do you any good.”
14. Sweat it out
It might be the last thing you feel like after a full-on day, but exercise is a stress-busting essential
It might be the last thing you feel like after a full-on day, but exercise is a stress-busting essential. “Exercise can cause the release of dopamine and endorphins. These neurotransmitters are often called ‘happy chemicals’ and can make you feel good immediately after a workout,’ says Dan Roberts, owner of global fitness brand Dan Roberts Group.
In addition, it may help you cope with stress in the long term, he notes. “A study in the Journal of Neuroscience, for example, found that when mice that exercised regularly experienced a stressor (exposure to cold water), they had a spike in activity in neurons that shut off excitement in a brain region associated with anxiety.”
Convinced you don’t have time to hit the gym? “Do a ‘time audit’ for a week. How many hours did you sleep, eat, exercise, watch TV, look at Facebook, work, etc? It’s a powerful exercise,” says Roberts. “Realising how little exercise you do compared with other activities will motivate you.”
15. Learn to clock off
“Teachers need respite from the pressures of school. Many work almost every night and that’s not healthy,” says Cooper. Of course, that’s easier said than done with a sky-high workload. But Cooper believes it’s about a mindset shift and creating a “standard” working day, so work outside of that does not become “normal”.
“Treat yours as an 8am-5pm or 5.30pm job. So after the school day, prioritise any work that’s necessary within that time frame, then clock off properly to go home.”
He believes taking work home is when your work/life balance can seriously slide. So if you have to put in a few extra hours, it could be best to do it at school (if personal circumstances allow) to draw a clear division.
Obviously that would require school leaders to plan meetings accordingly, and accept that some things might not get done. If some evenings have to be worked, he advises that blocking out at least three work-free evenings a week will still have an impact.
16. Be grateful
“People sometimes talk about having a Velcro mind or Teflon mind. The good things can slip past us, as though over Teflon. But we can get stuck to the bad things like Velcro and ruminate, getting increasingly stressed. We want to try to relate to our experience without the Velcro or Teflon,” says Kuyken. “If something goes badly, go, ‘OK, that was interesting. What happened there?’ Then let it go. If something goes well, savour the moment before moving on.”
If you find it hard to appreciate the good things, Kuyken suggests that setting aside time for active gratitude is a good idea. “There are some studies suggesting people who end their day with a moment of appreciation have improved wellbeing. So ask yourself, ‘What happened today that went well?’ And then crucially, ‘What was my role in that?’” Sing your own praises.
17. Create a culture shock
“If there’s a pressure-cooker environment in a school, it can cause a lot of tension between colleagues,” notes Cooper. “It should be the responsibility of the headteacher to create a positive environment, but any teacher can take the reins. Why not suggest an after-school staff barbecue or going bowling as a team? When you get to know people as human beings, tensions begin to fade away. You can start to change the culture of a place.”
18. Put an end to email
There’s nothing like an exploding inbox to rocket stress. “The culture of always communicating via email and everyone getting cc’d in can really overload people. Also emails can be misunderstood, which can lead to trouble,” suggests Cooper. “Whatever you do, don’t send emails to people in your school – talk to them face to face. If someone emails you, go see them and let them know they can buzz you or pop by your classroom in future.”
19. Do more of the good stuff
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy often used for treating anxiety. It aims to help you tackle problems positively by changing negative thought and behaviour patterns.
“CBT is not rocket science. It’s basically saying that our thoughts and behaviours shape our wellbeing and we need to do more of the thinking and behaviours that lead to good outcomes,” says Kuyken. He believes that anyone can apply a little CBT to help manage stress.
“Take behavioural change, for example – there are certain things we do that give us a sense of mastery and pleasure. And there are things that are depleting and erode our confidence. Schedule more of the former and less of the latter.
“So if you know that walking the dog, surfing and eating breakfast make you feel better but you squeeze them out because you’re busy, recognise that’s a choice. Make the choice, instead, to nourish yourself. Building your confidence will make you better able to tackle challenges when they arise.”
Jessica Powell is a freelance journalist