The topic of stress – personal or work-related – is emotive, controversial and generally misunderstood. I can make this statement, as over the last 16 years I have been conducting a survey based on the question “Is a little bit of stress good for you?” Despite extensive attempts by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and leading proponents working in this area to define stress as ‘a personal adverse reaction to excessive pressures/demands’, I have found that around 70 per cent of the professionals I have worked with in all sectors, think that some stress is ‘good’.
This then leads to the question how much of a migraine headache, irritable bowel, anxiety, withdrawing from society, increased bouts of anger are good for you?
What is it that so many people think is good for them? The answer is a challenging and stimulating amount of pressure, initially started with the ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived challenge. The right amount of pressure differs for each person, but optimum performance is achieved when the pressure balances with the individual’s personal resources.
The symptoms of stress are well documented, as is the fact that the right amount of pressure is stimulating and enabling; the trick is getting the balance right.
When an individual is working at ‘optimal performance’ they feel motivated, enthusiastic, satisfied and show an enhanced ability to influence.
Reasons to stress The causes of stress (stressors) are equally misunderstood in society. When asked what causes stress around 98 per cent of people cite (in no particular order) children, parents, death of a loved one, ill health, traffic, traffic offences, finances, work, targets, distressing news bulletins etc and around two per cent suggest it could be themselves. Whilst situations over which we believe we have no control certainly upset and distress us causing some of the symptoms described earlier, the key factor is the individual, their personal resources, mental toughness and resulting resilience. That said, anyone, if pushed beyond their coping abilities, could experience the devastating stress condition of ‘burn out’.
The concept of taking responsibility for how we react to challenges/stressors in our life means we maintain control of how we react and respond (internal locus of control). Once we decide that someone else/something is responsible for how we feel (external locus of control), we have lost the opportunity to influence how we react and become a victim of the stressor.
As with most personality concepts, high levels of either personality described above are destructive and the best approach is to have a healthy awareness of how much control you have in any given situation and act accordingly.
The personality trait of perfectionism (being highly meticulous) has for some time been identified as a significant stressor. It creates excessively high standards and expectations on an individual and exasperation when they or others fail to meet the exacting standards set. Translating this into schools with ever changing syllabi, techniques and standards, it could be very hard for teachers and managers to self-achieve resulting in much personal distress.
As in any business, the personality and management style of the head/principal/ceo is also a key factor in the wellbeing of staff. Aggressive, bullying, anxious, passive aggressive or idiosyncratic management styles tend to undermine and obliterate the effectiveness of staff trying to do their best for the pupils in their care. This undoubtedly is another factor which will lead to measurable, high organisational stress levels.
Stress in education Stress in the teaching profession has been measured in the UK by the Labour Force Survey (2011/2012) and shown to be 1780 cases per 100,000 people; this figure is only topped by health professions with Social work services coming a close third. This is not a league table anyone wants to be featuring in or leading.
From my research the key stressors described by teaching professions seem to be staff tensions and conflict; time pressures/admin; classroom conditions; and lack of rewards and recognitions. Challenging student behaviour; budgeting; and ever changing academic targets and assessments are also reasons. If you generalise the above they are not much different from most workplaces and this brings me to the HSE and the required / legal approach. All employers have legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure the health safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees and carrying out an Organisational Risk Assessment (ORA).
Head teachers should monitor factors that might suggest there is a problem with stress‑related illness, for example, high rates of absenteeism, staff turnover, poor performance, and conflict between staff. Head teachers should also ensure there is a health and safety policy that addresses the issue of stress in the workplace, including, if appropriate, a stress management strategy. Management should also ensure effective risk assessments have been carried out, are monitored regularly and any recommendations are being implemented and adequately funded. What’s more, those in charge should plan for stress-related risks when embarking on significant organisational change.
Management standards for stress The HSE have provided a template by issuing the Management Standards for Stress (2004). In this document they have identified the six key psychosocial risk factors which can cause work‑related stress. These are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
The HSE have provided an on line procedure for the organisation (which should be confidential) with 35 questions for all staff. These are technically processed to produce masses of useful information as to how staff are feeling, what they are experiencing and their concerns. If required, there are consultants who can do this for organisations and provide feedback and recommendations based on the results for the particular school.
I believe that if you can measure it – you can manage it. Organisational Risk Assessments throw up many questions and by asking staff useful, insightful questions and appraising the results honestly and professionally, changes can be implemented in a real consultative manner, engaging as many staff as possible and addressing concerns by discussing reasonable, acceptable adjustments.
Coping skills to help manage stress Self-awareness of your personality and personal drivers are really useful as it helps individuals manage their approach to challenges better. For instance one of my personal drivers is being on time. If I am with a colleague who doesn’t care if they are late, we have potential conflict. I managed this by explaining that being on time is important to me and asking how I can help my colleague to support me. One friend asked me to call her to make sure she was up and to call for her when I was ready. I was always early and she understood why.
Assertiveness is a type of behaviour that helps individuals to make clear what their needs and wants are. It can give them confidence to say ‘no’ and explain the reason. Lack of assertiveness in the workplace can be a contributor to poor performance. Sometimes people are made to feel guilty for speaking up for what they want and need which can lead to passive or disruptive behaviour.
Communication skills are another essential tool to help reduce some of the stress risk factors. Good communication incorporates listening attentively, awareness of body language and emotional awareness. Flexible thinking is a useful skill as it aids in negotiating a positive way forward with a win/win outcome which provides a feel good factor for both parties. Social Support from an accessible group of family or friends can often help to put situations into perspective and allow opportunities to explore acceptable options. Do exercise you enjoy, eat fresh, nutritious food, aim to achieve a healthy weight for your height, be a non‑smoker, keep to your intake of acceptable levels of alcohol and caffeine, achieve regular good quality, refreshing sleep and regular ‘time out’ or ‘me time’. All these approaches increase the immune defence system as well as supporting a healthy heart and other vital organs.