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Your first step to beating the blues

Maureen Meeke looks at the causesof stress among college lecturers

FEW people would dispute the assertion that teaching can be a stressful way to earn a living. Several years ago, I decided to step back from being a full-time further education lecturer and go part-time. However, finances dictated that I had to fill the gap and so I started doing some freelance work.

One of the things I became involved with was the development of a number of workshops which covered stress management for lecturers. Now offered by the Scottish Further Education Unit as part of its ongoing programme of in-service training for lecturers, the workshop has been in consistent demand for the past 20 months.

So far, so predictable. What I had not anticipated was how much I would learn about the sources, effects and costs of stress in further education teaching - and how constantly the workshop would have to change and develop to meet the needs of participants. I have enjoyed meeting many lively, responsive, enthusiastic and interesting fellow lecturers. However, I have also met too many of the tired, depressed, dispossessed and those frankly at the end of their tether.

Participants are asked to concentrate on and clarify their thinking on their own sources of stress. What does the word mean to them? What causes them stress in their everyday working lives? Anyone involved in colleges would expect the usual suspects to make their appearance here: large (and getting larger) classes, more class contact time, disruptive students, limited marking and preparation time.

Yes, they do appear, but interestingly are rarely identified as the major causes of stress and stress reactions (physical, mental or emotional). In fact, it is endlessly surprising how capably, and for the most part, how willingly, FE lecturers are embracing increased workloads. Few lecturers taking part in these workshops dispute the need for improved efficiency, or resent their part in achieving this.

The breaking point for most of those taking part stems from the amount of support they feel they are offered in managing their workloads. The level of work, and the rate at which their jobs and responsibilities are changing, will not necessarily cause stress. But the feeling that changes (of any type or magnitude) are being foisted on them, with little consultation and minimal management support, most definitely will.

There is a marked difference between those who are struggling with demanding jobs and heavy workloads, and who are looking for practical suggestions on how to cope (and in these cases, for stress management read time management), and those whose workload may be lighter but feel they are undervalued, not listened to, unsupported and expected to manage constant changes in their jobs and responsibilities without any time to absorb these, or offered any in-service training whatsoever.

Indeed, the single most striking fact is that many of the workshop participants have been offered absolutely no personal or professional development training since completing their FE teaching qualification (TQFE), sometimes up to 25 years earlier. In many cases, levels of absenteeism and stress-related illness could be reduced drastically by better management of change at all levels throughout colleges in Scotland, and by better and genuine investment in people.

But this is not to say all responsibility lies with college management. Far from it. One of the things the workshop attempts to do is to encourage people to evaluate their own lifestyles, and to examine their own values and priorities. It is extremely common (especially among female participants) for people to find, after some exploration and closer examination of their stress levels, that they are actually in full command of their jobs and workloads. In reality, it is the combined effects of a demanding job and possibly even more demanding home life that can push a person into an unacceptably stressful situation.

What responsibility should individuals carry for managing their own stress? A lot, apparently. A ruling by three English Appeal Court judges makes it clear that employees have the responsibility of letting employers know if they are under stress - on the understanding that such employers are powerless to help or offer support if they are not aware of the problem.

So our workshop attempts to break through the often deeply ingrained feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that the stressed and depressed often feel - and to urge the participants to take action if excessive demands are made of them at work.

Such action could be relatively mild, such as pointing out to a line manager the impossibility of completing two tasks at the same time; or quite serious, such as putting a complaint in writing. Managing stress in the workplace is the joint responsibility of the employer and the individual who must clarify when, where and how they are under stress - which our workshop is designed to do and then to offer coping strategies.

Maureen Meeke works part-time for the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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