DAVID E WATTERS
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Teaching is the most stressful occupation there is, according to England’s Health and Safety Executive, and approximately 80%, that is 4 in every 5, teachers complain about work-related stress.
Many thousands leave the profession every year, as a result, but what causes this stress and what are the solutions?
Within various educational roles, I have felt trapped in an endless spiral of bureaucracy; where paperwork and pen-pushing (or keyboard-tapping; the 21st Century equivalent) take precedence over the practical pleasures of nurturing and developing the knowledge and skills of students.
Many, in similar roles to myself, agree that more time is spent proving they are doing their job, than actually doing the job.
Of course, it is vital that high educational standards and quality of provision are upheld and improved upon but many highly-capable teachers currently feel that they are required to continuously justify their position and are leaving the profession as a result.
The NUT (National Union of Teachers) is concerned by the increase in stress amongst those in the profession. Amanda Brown, head of the employment, conditions and rights department at the NUT, said in the Guardian newspaper (26 December 2012), that a reluctance to report stress meant that many more instances went unnoticed and added that “the current model is about getting teachers to show how they’ve met their targets – if they haven’t done so immediately there’s a very quick procedure, not to support teachers, but towards disciplinary action and dismissal. That creates a context in which teachers feel under pressure.”
In the same article, Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), warned that austerity measures were placing additional strain on staff. She said, “People are angry about changes to their pay and very concerned about the shape of the curriculum – we’ll have a lot of people who will think about leaving the job that they like doing to try and find a higher salary elsewhere. However much you love your job it’s very difficult to be resilient when you’re under attack from a lot of places.”
Although it may have previously been the case, for the majority of us, work is not the first port of call when looking for the meaning of life or for a source of validation and self-worth. Even for those who are in what are considered to be vocational jobs, their energy and enthusiasm has become so suppressed that they work solely to pay the bills, if that.
Considering the percentage of time that one spends in the workplace and, if you’re anything like me, travelling to and from it, isn’t it a pity that we often come away feeling drained and underappreciated?
I’m not here to promote the dependency on external validation, but when confronted continually by a stack of sticks and deprived of crunchy carrots, one is left malnourished and bruised.
Observations from a recent Psychological Science article on how relationship anxiety can lower the immune system can quite easily be translated into how poor working relationships can impact upon our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
This research, in an article titled “Attachment Anxiety Is Linked to Alterations in Cortisol Production and Cellular Immunity,” found that “anxiety was associated with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as fewer cytotoxic and helper T-cells, which help find and destroy invading pathogens (which would lead to a weaker immune system). The impact on the suppressed immune system is described in the research as “compromised immunity” (1).
When John Illingworth, a head teacher of a Nottingham primary school for 24 years, had to stop himself from hitting a parent, he realised that he needed to take time away from work.
Mr. Illingworth told the BBC that the parent in question “was a bit upset with someone else in the school and I just could not cope with the interaction.” Aged just 55, the seasoned teacher had a breakdown.
“It was brought on by an accumulation of stresses. I didn’t see it coming but I suddenly found myself unable to do simple things like make decisions or relate to people”.
Job-satisfaction, I am told, comes when we make our passion our profession and for many teachers, this is their ideal and original vision; to share a love of their subject and a love of lifelong learning with others.
Those teachers, and other professionals, who are most at risk of feeling anxiety and suffering as a result, are those who care deeply about their role within an organisation.
These people are the conscientious and dedicated employees who seek to achieve high standards, often at the expense of their personal relationships, and, whilst diligence and professional passion are not necessarily bad qualities, danger occurs when diligent and passionate professionals lose sight of other aspects of life and the balance is lost.
This can be particularly harsh when an individual’s high standards and resultant achievement go unrecognised and unrewarded by leaders who are lost in their own spiral of self-imposed or externally-applied pressures to perform.
When work takes priority over all other aspects of life, the “attachment anxiety”, in relation to work, can have devastating effects and the high-instances of stress-related sickness-leave are testament to this.
The ONS (Office of National Statistics) states that in 2011, around 131 million days were lost through absences due to sickness or injury, a fall of around 26 per cent since 1993 where 178 million days were lost. (2)
Statistics are curious and open to interpretation and whilst these figures may suggest a healthier Jamie Oliver school dinner culture, they are perhaps more reflective of a growing anxiety, amongst those who are fortunate to be employed, about potential redundancy and long-term unemployment; so workers “clock-in” regardless of physical or mental health concerns.
Tassa’s story, which appears on the Teacher Support Network website (http://teachersupport.info/) includes this relatable statement, ”I had stopped going out on the weekends, stopped doing anything remotely pleasurable because I couldn’t justify not working when there was so much work to be done”. Tassa, like many other teachers, felt isolated and unable to communicate her feelings. Her view is that, “Teachers are very reluctant to seek help because it admits there’s a problem and often the problem is too big for them to solve”.
Professor Cary Cooper, from the Lancaster University Management School, was quoted in the Daily Mail saying that: ‘People are too scared to take time off. Even if they are ill, they are coming into work. It is called “sickness presenteeism”. Do you think anybody wants to have a bad sickness absence record with the boss at the current time?’(3)
In these times of austerity, with unemployment at 2.49million, many of us feel a very powerful pressure to turn up for work and to take on increased and unrewarded responsibilities, because the uncertain alternative is too frightening to contemplate. Employees are more willing to accept mistreatment, understaffing and increased workloads, and, in doing so, can ultimately lose respect for themselves and for their employer, for accepting these conditions.
Financial recession need not lead to the advancement of mismanagement, where empathy, encouragement and decency are forgotten. Pay-freezes and growing living costs already restrict the quality of life for the majority of us and it is, therefore, increasingly important that employers take proactive steps towards enhancing the working experience of their employees.
Within education there is an emphasis upon inclusion and equality of opportunity to access learning, so that all students can fulfil their potential within a nurturing and supportive, structured environment.
Effective managers, within education and elsewhere, could use this model to influence their approach to how they interact and communicate with staff. If teachers are excluded from decision-making, if changes are imposed without consultation or without consideration for the potential impact upon teaching staff, then the whole system has failed.
Too often, it is forgotten that teaching staff are the primary “suppliers” to the main “client”; the business of education, as it has become, would benefit from management who can respond to the undoubted insight of their staff, within a nurturing and supportive, structured context, so that the core educators can influence, shape and enhance their environment; “buy in”, if you will, and develop or retain a sense of pride in the organisation and of their role within it.
Organisations which fail to provide good people-management will observe higher incidences of work-related stress and will ultimately begin to see increased staff turnover and, from a business perspective, loss in faith from clients and reduced results; reflected in financial terms, since within education anything which impacts upon recruitment, retention, achievement and progression has a financial implication.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) clearly state that, “Stress can cause changes in those experiencing it. In some cases there are clear signs that people are experiencing stress at work and if these can be identified early, action can be taken before the pressure becomes a problem. This may make it easier to reduce and eliminate the causes.
It is important that everyone looks out for changes in a person’s or a group’s behaviour. However, in many cases the changes may only be noticeable to the person subject to the stress and so it is also important to look at how you are feeling and try to identify any potential issues you may have as early as possible and take positive action to address them; this may be raising the matter with a line manager, talking to an occupational health professional or your own GP”. (4)
Stress within the workplace can be caused by; excessive and unreasonable demands in areas such as workload, work pattern and environment; by the level or lack of control, how much say, a person has over how they carry out their role; by the quality of support in terms of resources and positive encouragement received from management and the wider organisation; by the standard of relationships; by confusion over their role and that of others and, in some situations, the conflict for those with dual-roles.
Lastly, although this list is by no means exhaustive, work-related stress can be severely exacerbated during periods of organisational change; particularly when this change is poorly managed and employees are not part of the process.
Stress manifests and reveals itself differently in different individuals but all managers should be aware of changes in an employee’s behaviour and be able to ascertain whether these are connected to excessive work-related pressures.
Some typical symptoms, as cited by the Health and Safety Executive, include Emotional symptoms:
- Negative or depressive feeling
- Disappointment with yourself
- Increased emotional reactions – more tearful or sensitive or aggressive
- Loneliness, withdrawn
- Loss of motivation commitment and confidence
- Mood swings (not behavioural)
- Confusion, indecision
- Poor concentration and poor memory
Those suffering from stress may also display changes from their normal behaviour:
- Changes in eating habits
- Increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’
- Mood swings effecting behaviour
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Twitchy, nervous behaviour
- Changes in attendance such as arriving later or taking more time off.
It should be noted here however, that these indicators of stress may also indicate other conditions and, if you are concerned, you should seek advice from your GP. Additionally, if you are concerned about a colleague, you should advise them to see their GP.
Early intervention can significantly reduce work-related stress, if the correct support strategies are put in place. If the risks from work related stress are being effectively managed and controlled, this will reflect in better health and well-being, higher productivity and a decrease in sickness absence.
Ultimately, we as individuals, currently have two choices, (1) accept the ticking time-bomb of tension or (2) become detached from the tense environment; not by resigning but by taking a good look at the positives and by revisiting the core-purpose of the job. In doing this we can gain a balanced perspective and prioritise personal happiness over professional pressure.
Employers also have a significant role to play in promoting compassionate leadership above encouraging a demoralising and judgemental culture of micro-(mis)management. They should develop team leaders who can communicate realistic expectations clearly, offer guidance and support in a professionally structured way, nurture talent and reward staff fairly for their contribution to the company.
In conclusion, a successfully stress-free company will prioritise the needs of all employees by creating a culture where demands on an individual’s workload and work pattern are reasonable; where the level of control, how much say, a person has over how they carry out their role is equitable; where the quality of support and provision of resources meets expectations; where professional relationships are positive; and where, during inevitable periods of organisational change, communication is open, respectful and does not compromise the dignity of any single employee.
(1) Attachment Anxiety Is Linked to Alterations in Cortisol Production and Cellular Immunity, Psychological Science 0956797612452571,first published on January 10, 2013
(2) OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS, Sickness Absence in the Labour Market, April 2012. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_265016.pdf
(3) Mail Online, Workers ‘too scared to go off sick’ as recession bites: Number of absences drops to record low By Becky Barrow: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2144782/UK-recession-Workers-scared-sick-number-absences-drops-record-low.html
(4) The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/furtheradvice/signsandsymptoms.htm