Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Drawing a line under stress


Schools and colleges are often listed among the most stressful working environments but leaders can take steps to alleviate the problems for themselves and for staff, says Julian Stanley.

Stress is a difficult concept to define. Everybody has probably felt stressed at some point and most of us are comfortable using that word to describe how we're feeling. Ask any two people to describe what they mean by stress, however, and you're unlikely to receive two identical answers. In her book last The Truth about Stress, Angela Patmore identified 650 things that people describe as 'stress'.

At Teacher Support Network (TSN), and College and University Support Network, we speak to thousands of individuals every year who tell us about their experiences of one, some or many of these different feelings: too much pressure, being constantly rushed, unable to concentrate on basic tasks, having difficulty sleeping, and so on.

Quite often, though, there will also be a reference to 'stress'. Even if we can't explain exactly what we mean by the word, we all understand each other when we use it.

The Health and Safety Executive's definition of stress is therefore necessarily broad but specifically negative: "The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them." This is because, on one level, pressure at work can be healthy.

Feeling the stimulation of new but reasonable demands helps motivation, as the excitement and sometimes even adrenaline produced pushes us to perform better. But when demands become too great - or at least seem that way - we cross the dividing line from positive to negative, and we can feel not in control. This is the sensation that is commonly referred to as stress.

The word is thought to have developed from an abbreviation of 'distress' but the two concepts are now subtly but significantly different. Physiologically, when the body feels under pressure, it automatically prepares you for a potentially threatening situation.

This is through a series of reactions involved with shutting down the parasympathetic nervous system and turning on the sympathetic nervous system.

An intense but usually temporary experience of this kind of reaction, such as profound sorrow, is referred to as distress. If the pressures on an individual are lasting, resulting in enduring mental or emotional health difficulties such as feeling unable to cope, this is when it becomes stress.

The reality is that every job comes with responsibilities. No matter where you work and for whom, work can be stressful. It's estimated that about 13 million working days are lost every year in the UK through anxiety and stress-related conditions. Nearly a quarter of all calls to the TSN support line are from staff members suffering from stress. It can affect not only your working life but also your home life - and the causes can arise in both places.

Symptoms of stress

Some people approach stress by simply trying to 'work through it', hoping that they will recover once their lives calm down. In reality, stress can undermine your ability to get things done and affect your physical and mental health. There are three groups of symptoms: physical, emotional and behavioural (see right).

In isolation, these symptoms may be relatively minor but if you are experiencing a number of them, now may be a good time to attempt to identify the cause.

Lots of factors can cause stress: your commute, daily concerns like relationships and money matters, or infrequent events such as bereavement and moving house. Stressful aspects of the workplace include a poor physical working environment, excessive working time and workload, internal politics, excessive bureaucracy or a blame culture.

These issues arise in workplaces everywhere but schools and colleges can be particularly stressful places, particularly for those with greater responsibility and demands, such as headteachers, principals and other leaders.

Surveys frequently cite schools as one of the most stressful working environments, because of additional pressures such as workload, inspections, problems with parents and pupil behaviour.

Ideas for coping

There are essentially two elements to addressing stress: reducing the pressures on you and learning to manage them better. There is no simple way to beat stress but, with help, you can regain control of your life.

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.

When a situation feels overwhelming, take a few moments to calm down. You can learn to deal with the underlying causes of your stress, both 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.

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

Take action

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 of some kind and find out what works best for you. Unfortunately, the more stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted we feel, the harder it is to be proactive. Therefore, here are some ideas to get you started.

Try listing everything that is 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, daily walk will give you valuable breathing space. Muscular tension often parallels and exacerbates mental stress.

Relaxing physically at the end of the day is important but sometimes hard to do. Try to avoid increasing your consumption of alcohol or caffeine. Although smoking may seem to help, it really doesn't.

Finally, try to get a good night's sleep. Relax before you go to bed to avoid lying awake and worrying. Do something that forces you to think actively about something else. Meet friends, cook a meal, do a Sudoku puzzle.

In our experience, combating stress in schools and colleges can be best approached as a cultural challenge. Stress can be infectious and it is unlikely that only a few individuals will be experiencing these problems alone. As well as having unique challenges that can cause stress, leaders are often in the best place to try to lead a community in addressing the problem.

Creating an atmosphere of openness - where staff members can discuss their situations constructively and freely with their line managers and colleagues - can have a significant impact on stress and thereby also on productivity and standards.

Teacher Support Network and College and University Support Network are always there to help but the best solutions to problems of stress and other emotional difficulties are often found by school and college communities themselves.

Julian Stanley is chief executive of Teacher Support Network

Symptoms of stress

Physical symptoms

  • Sleep is disturbed and less restful.

  • Complaints of general aches and pains last longer and can develop into tense muscles and a general lethargy.

  • Headaches and migraines become more frequent.

  • You become more susceptible to colds and flu.

  • In the longer term, you may be at greater risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Mental and emotional symptoms

  • You may find yourself often irritable and withdrawn.

  • You may find it harder to maintain your concentration, and become increasingly forgetful.

  • Anxiety and depression are conditions also commonly associated with stress.

Behavioural symptoms

  • Personal relations can become strained, often for no apparent reason.

  • You can become less reliable, less punctual, more often absent from work or more accident prone.

  • Eating habits can change frequently.

  • There may be increased consumption of stimulants such as alcohol and nicotine.

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Teacher Support Network is an independent charity dedicated to improving the well-being and effectiveness of teachers. It also operates College and University Support Network, which offers emotional, practical and financial support to those working in further, adult and higher education.

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