What exactly is stress and what can teachers do about it?
In my work as a stress management consultant, trainer, coach and therapist, I find that people use the word stress in many different ways. As a noun – “I’m suffering from stress” – it appears to be a health condition which varies tremendously from person to person. As a verb – “I’m stressed” – it suggests that the person is extremely busy and possibly not coping very well. As an adjective – “this is a stressful job” – it seems to imply that an outside factor is creating the feeling. And the word “stressy” seems to indicate that a person is highly strung. There are, of course, those who would tell you that stress is good for you. But why would something that appears to make you ill be good for you?
So this is the conundrum I face: the word stress means different things to different people. The reason for this is that stress is very subjective and the body’s physiological response to a situation varies with every person according to their life experiences, values and beliefs.
As this article is about the workplace of education, it is appropriate to use the workplace definition of stress provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who currently have the responsibility for work related stress. The workplace definition of stress is: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed upon them”. This clearly indicates that pressure is the key to our understanding of stress.
A certain level of pressure is good for an individual, creating motivation, enthusiasm, enjoyment and satisfaction. It stimulates the mind and body to be alert and produce emotional chemicals related to positivity and happiness (Pert 1999; Seligman 2003). Too much or excessive pressure, however, will exhaust the individual and change their emotional chemical balance, possibly resulting in ill health.
Interestingly, the level of acceptable pressure is different for each person and varies with life events and attitude changes throughout life. This may account for why some people are sceptical about the label of stress and tend to see it as something experienced only by “wimps” or “shirkers”. However, while stress is undoubtedly used by some people as a difficult to prove excuse for their behaviour, as more and more people experience its sometimes devastating ill health effects, both physical and mental, so a greater understanding of stress is developing.
The relationship between stress and pressure is clarified in the pressure versus coping graph (figure 1) based on the Yerkes Dodson curve (1908). It is interesting to note that too little pressure (boredom) has the same effect as too much pressure.
The outcomes of prolonged, excessive pressure (stress)
While stress touches people in different ways, its effects can be extremely serious and long-lasting. The following are some of the ways in which stress may affect people.
Individuals suffering from stress can become anxious, aggressive, apathetic, bored, tired, depressed, frustrated, guilty, irritable, lacking in confidence, lonely tense and nervous.
Stress can induce strokes, “nerves”, insomnia, neck & shoulder pain, asthma, high blood pressure, skin conditions, indigestion/ulcers, varicose veins, poor circulation, depression, anxiety, headache/migraine, impaired immune response, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, lower back pain, impotence/menstrual changes, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and some cancers.
Stress can result in increased official and unofficial drug taking, over eating, under eating, excessive drinking, excessive smoking, incoherent speech, nervous laughter, restlessness and trembling, and it can cause people to become accident prone or overly emotional.
Changed thinking patterns
Stress can lead to difficulties making decisions, difficulties with problem solving, forgetfulness, hypersensitivity to criticism, difficulties with concentration and the propensity to be easily confused.
The Causes of stress
A survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in 2002 indicated that:
- 40 per cent of teachers reported having visited their doctor with a stress-related problem in the previous year
- 20 per cent of teachers believed they drank too much
- 25 per cent of teachers suffered from serious stress related health problems, including hypertension, insomnia, depression and gastrointestinal disorders.
A youGov poll in 2007 found that stress had led half of all teachers to consider leaving the profession. Those considering leaving cited long hours, insufficient management support, excessive workload, large class sizes and pupil indiscipline as the factors chiefly to blame for their perceived high stress levels.
An Ofsted survey (2010) suggests that pupil behaviour is unsatisfactory in a fifth of schools, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers recently found that a quarter of teachers have recently encountered violent pupils.
Evidence from a variety of sources (see Jarvis 2002) suggests that the causes of these dramatic statistics can be found in three key areas:
- factors intrinsic to teaching
- personal cognitive factors affecting individual vulnerability
- local management and regular political interventions.
The stress-inducing factors identified in teaching were workload, long working hours and low status. Workload and long working hours are not specific to teaching but, combined with a perception (probably quite realistic) of low status, and the threat of occasional violence, without the power of enforcement uniforms, tasers or batons, many teachers are left in a vulnerable state, as recently witnessed in the assault case of Peter Harvey.
The way you perceive situations, based on your beliefs, values and life experiences, affects the way you react. Everyone has a different life blueprint which affects their perception of a situation. In my work, I try to have a non-judgemental approach to the people I meet. This is not easy, but I always seek to subdue the reactions caused by my own perceptions. I find it useful to listen and accept a person’s experience then start a discussion from that point. This is a skill that many managers could benefit from as, by allowing the individual to tell their story from their perspective, it can prevent a potentially problematic situation from escalating.
It often comes as a surprise when I indicate to people that one of the causes of their stress is their style of thinking. The diagram in Figure 2 may help explain what happens in the brain.
Regular political interventions occur in all public run organisations and educational, medical, local government and law enforcement practitioners all have excruciating tales to tell of inappropriate, ill advised initiatives. These can serve to rack up the pressures, especially in those individuals who are resistant to change or inflexible.
Options to reduce stress and increase resilience
In the workplace, all organisations are required to carry out a risk assessment for stress under the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations (1999). This procedure is explained on the HSE website and from start to finish takes about eighteen months. It involves a confidential audit of staff, a review of the organisation’s statistics for such things as absence and supply, as well as discussion of the audit results and the development and review of action plans for each department.
Six workplace risks have been identified and a set of management standards have been created to give guidance on how an effective, low-stress school or college should be working. One of the key aspects of this procedure is that it should result in managers and staff talking through the issues identified and proactively exploring solutions. This can be done with a facilitator to maximise outcomes and focus on priorities. If this process is done with active intent, it can be very positive in reducing work related issues, as it is based on factual feedback and not hearsay.
Training senior staff and managers about the key factors involved in stress and how to implement the management standards, increases knowledge and improves the will to create a positive attitude within the establishment. This is vital to encourage staff to identify issues and help to suggest and implement solutions.
Training managers to coach, a skill which takes some time to develop, adds to their communication skills and is people focused, thus enhancing rapport with staff who may be nervous, distressed, aggressive or passive.
Training staff to recognise the signs of stress and to take responsibility for their reactions will allow them to challenge their perceptions and result in them taking control of situations they find challenging. This is positive, pro-active, personal stress management. Providing telephone or face to face support and signposting relevant help lines will also allow staff to access various modes of help.
These approaches are central to raising confidence, respect and commitment within your organisation. They require co-operative management to build up trust within the staff; this takes time, patience and requires a clear strategy which all staff members buy into. Such a strategy does not require money (in scarce supply these days) but actions, words and body language to match.
Stress is a reality. It is a physiological body state causing serious ill health and there is a law requiring organisations to proactively identify and manage it. At a personal level, people can recognise stress in themselves; they can begin to take control of their thinking patterns, review their priorities and clarify their needs, which may help to reduce their personal pressures.
Ann McCracken is Chair of the International Stress Management Association (ISMA):
She is also a Director of AMC2, which provides consultancy and in-house training courses on stress management:
The HSE publication Working together to reduce stress at work can be downloaded at:
Practical and emotional support for staff in the education sector and their families is available from the Teacher Support Network:
This article was first published in issue 49 (November/December 2010) of SEN Magazine