"It's the worst job in the world. It's the best job in the world."
Millions of work-days are lost each year to work-related stress. It's the most common reason for absence from work - whether labelled as such or as a virus, backache, headache, anxiety or depression.
So here are some definitions and explanations about stress and some hints and tips about becoming more resilient. And there's helpful information for individuals and managers about what to do if it gets out of hand.
The Human Function Curve (Dr Peter Nixon)
What is stress?
There are many definitions of stress. I usually go for this one:
A feeling of tension or pressure experienced when an individual feels that the demands placed on them exceed the resources the individual has personally to meet them.
We experience the negative consequences of too much stress as a growing sense of inability to cope with life. We have physical and emotional reactions such as exhaustion, panic and fear. The intense feelings can become so overwhelming that we become very unwell. The human function curve illustrates this phenomenon and shows how trying to push ourselves to do more and more can lead to total breakdown and burn out.
In general, people have a level at which they function efficiently at whatever they are doing. Increase the level of pressure where the prescribed task becomes uncomfortable and eventually the stress level peaks and our output begins to decrease even to the point of burnout or breakdown.
If everything in our life was always the same we could cope a lot better. The problem with this is that life would become terribly boring and even that would become stressful. Secondly, the fact is that life is constantly changing and brings new challenges every day.
The ability for stress to affect us is as varied as there are individuals in the world: everyone is different. However hard we may try to limit its effects on us, there are still outside factors that are beyond our control - such as some sort of trauma, the grief that comes with the death of a loved one, or a sudden, unexpected illness. These have the ability to bring about strong symptoms. The more healthy we are, both physically and mentally, the more prepared we will be to fight the emotions and anxieties of stress.
So what can we do?
As individuals we can -
• Acknowledge the stress. You are human. Your feelings are valid. You are not going mad. You are not a failure. Know that you have a duty of care for yourself, as well as your employer having a duty of care for you.
• Simplify your life wherever possible: review everything – at work and at home. Where can you make changes? What could be simplified? Who can help?
• Relax regularly: it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity if you’re to continue to be a good practitioner in a rewarding and stressful profession. Find what works for you and put it in your diary as a regular slot – i.e. a long, hot bath with candles; a walk; a massage; a drink or a meal with friends; laugh – watch a funny film, programme. Cultivate a hobby. Maintain family relationships. Stay in touch regularly with those who matter to you – a text, card, postcard, quick phone call, cup of tea/coffee regularly will keep you in touch and feel more manageable than cramming everything in to the holidays.
• Get enough sleep. If you’re regularly sleeping badly, think about taking Valerian, for example. Try a relaxation or mindfulness activity before bedtime. Pay attention to ‘sleep hygiene’ – no screens/IT immediately before bed, no working right up until you go to sleep. Wind down for at least half an hour before you go to bed.
• As often as possible, eat what you know is good for you. And then don’t berate yourself when sometimes you want only chocolate, cake, wine (or all three).
• Exercise regularly. If it’s impossible during the working week, build it in at the weekend. Find something you like doing and stick to it. Rope in a friend to do it with you.
• Try and keep your workspace/desk as tidy as possible. At the end of each day, when you leave your workspace, make it a place you’ll want to come back to next time. Use post-its, planners, schemes of work to remind you of priorities for the day and other tasks you want to get done. Then leave it behind – literally and mentally.
• Practice appropriate, professional assertiveness. Sometimes you may have to say, ‘No’.
• At the end of each day, think of 2 things you did well. At the beginning of each day, think of 2 things you’re looking forward to
• When it all feels just too much, stop: take a deep breath: do a short mindfulness practice.
And as a whole school/LMT/governors -
• Discuss staff well-being and possible workplace stressors regularly at meetings. When you make decisions, when you take on new projects, when changes occur, discuss the impact on staff well-being, examine possible stressors and what actions will be taken – by individuals, by colleagues, by the LMT and governors. Communicate clearly to all. Review.
• Decide how you will monitor work-related stress – e.g. an employee well-being survey – and what you will do about key stressors that are flagged up. Communicate these clearly to all, involving all staff in discussions about next steps. And then review.
• For all those with line-management responsibilities – including LMT and governors - give up-to-date, informed CPD/training in how to recognise work-related stress, how to recognise when it’s seriously impacting on individuals, and what to do about it.
• As a whole school and as individual teams, look ahead and pinpoint the ‘pinch’ times in the year when things are even busier, when stress levels are likely to be higher: plan ahead, discuss. Who can help whom? What can you each share to make life easier – planning, marking strategies, taking someone’s assembly, etc?
• Listen to and empathise with others: create a workplace culture of listening – not just the same one or two people who may be good listeners, but everyone. Research has proved that helping others is one of the key components of happiness.
• Ensure that the Health & Safety Rep is as au fait with the risks associated with work-related stress (and what to do about it) as those with more tangible risks (‘trips and slips’, for example).
• Continuously work at a culture of ‘no blame’ in relation to work-related stress and those who may be struggling. Clearly publicise a contact – in or out of school – with whom staff can talk in confidence.