Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

5 Ways to De-Stress This Summer

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

5 Ways to De-Stress This Summer

Article excerpt

For under-pressure teachers, switching off over the holidays may seem a distant dream. But simple strategies can help you to banish the stress and make the most of your break, writes psychologist Sir Cary Cooper

There was a time when the final school bell of the academic year signalled something significant. It was a starting gun for authorised absence, a fanfare announcing that the annual migration to the campsites and hotels of Europe could begin. Six wine-soaked weeks of not worrying about, not even thinking about school awaited.

But times have changed. That bell now sounds like a muffled, mocking snigger. It signals not a holiday, nor an escape, but a failed promise. Sure, teachers may still make their annual migration. But they have more than factor 25 in their luggage - the worry of work is also stowed away. And although it's true that teachers can escape the confines of their school, the reprieve is only temporary: the date when they "pop in" to "do a few bits and get a head start" comes earlier each year.

This is bad news for students - and worse news for teachers. Taking a proper break is not just advisable, it is essential. Thankfully, there is something you can do about it, with or without help from the government.

It's all work, work, work

The workload issue is not as new as you might think. Twenty years ago, I carried out a national study of teacher stress with Dr Cheryl Travers of Loughborough University (supported by the NASUWT teaching union). The resulting 1995 book, Teachers Under Pressure, revealed high levels of sickness absence, premature retirement and burnout in the profession.

Sadly, the situation has worsened. As numerous occupational surveys and studies have found, teachers are working even longer, more unsocial hours. They have heavier workloads, are more vulnerable to fluctuating government policy (whichever party is in power), are highly regulated and are increasingly "named and shamed" in the public arena. There has been a concomitant decline in their personal status - in their communities and in the public's perception.

This has resulted in increasing levels of presenteeism (teachers arriving at school earlier and staying later) and leavism (teachers using their holidays to catch up on work, rather than taking time out from the pressures).

As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for excellent teaching or healthy staff. Instead, it opens the door to stress, invites it in and makes it comfortable.

Insomnia or sleep disturbance, fatigue, muscle tension and pain, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, inability to focus and concentrate, more socially withdrawn or aggressive behaviour, general irritability - these are the early warning signs. They can lead to more serious illness: cardiovascular disease and increased risk of heart attacks, severe tension headaches and other musculoskeletal problems, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression.

It's important to remember that it is not only the teacher who is affected. There is also a knock-on effect on a person's family when they constantly work in the evenings and at weekends, or frequently worry about work. This can trigger problems with a teacher's partner or children.

Kicking stress to the kerb

It's a bleak picture, and unfortunately these are very real problems for many teachers. Of course, individual factors can influence whether you are more vulnerable to stress, including your gender, whether you have a Type A ("workaholic") behaviour pattern and your level of emotional intelligence. Let's address these one by one.

l It's a generalisation, but women tend to create socially supportive relationships that help them to deal with stressful situations, whereas men don't.

l Type A behaviour - being driven, overly ambitious and aggressive in relationships - can predispose someone to stress-related illness, particularly heart disease. …

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