Tips for managing workload and stress

Written by: Kathy Oxtoby | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Given the pressure of the teaching role, being able to manage stress is crucial. Kathy Oxtoby seeks out some tips and advice on ways to de-stress and manage stress both at work and at home, and when and where to seek support

Changing curriculums, potential redundancies, rising workloads, and uncertainties about the government’s continued expansion of the academies programme: no wonder more teachers say they are feeling stressed.

The Education Support Partnership supports around 60,000 teachers a year with the aim of boosting their health, happiness and wellbeing. Chief executive Julian Stanley, says that recently the charity has seen a growing demand for its support. In 2015, its Education Sector Health Survey found that 84 per cent of respondents were suffering from stress and between 2014 and 2015, it saw a five per cent rise in stress-related calls.

Common causes of stress for teachers

Mr Stanley is not surprised in this growth. He says that teachers who get in touch are expressing “feelings of uncertainty that they are potentially facing redundancy, an increasing workload, and issues around student behaviour”, he says.

Constant change is a constant theme as to why teachers are experiencing stress. “A new government comes in, and goalposts keep changing,” explained Kathryn Lovewell, founder of the Teacher Sanctuary.

A key part of the problem for Ms Lovewell is that poor communication between those working within the school community about the government-led changes to the profession can result in teachers feeling stressed.

She continued: “Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. So, for example, senior leadership at the school may be talking to one particular department, but not to heads of year. If communication channels are not clear, open and effective this can generate huge stress.”

The growing workload is also a “big problem” that is contributing to teachers experiencing stress, according to Kiri Tunks, a humanities teacher in London: “There’s an expectation that teachers should keep on taking more work and that they’re never doing enough. As one person said to me: ‘Do I really need to come into work at the weekend to be an outstanding teacher?’”
Ms Lovewell describes workload expectations of teachers as “inhumane”.

“I spoke to one deputy head who is expected to work a 12-hour day without a lunch break! Teachers are expected to be outstanding 100 per cent of the time, but they are human not automatons.”

A lack of praise for teachers who go above and beyond their daily role also compounds feelings of stress, she believes.

“I know of one drama teacher who spent all year preparing for the school’s performance. They had a formal thank you from the school governors at the end of the show, but there was no appreciation of what a difference the teacher had made to students, and that this work was done in their own time. This lack of praise is a stress generator, and generates resentment.”

Mr Stanley said that when you factor in the personal pressures teachers may be facing as well – from financial concerns to carer responsibilities or relationship issues – it is not surprising that more and more teachers are suffering from stress.

The impact of stress

As we all know, stress can have an enormous impact on the lives of teachers. Stress can have an impact on colleagues too – when teachers take leave due to stress or decide to leave the profession because of it, this is likely to increase other teachers’ workloads. Constant changes in staffing and staff turnover are also likely to cause stress for the teachers that remain.

And when teachers are stressed this can have an impact on students, too.

Ms Tunks explained: “If you’re stressed, anxious and irritable it is likely that things will go wrong in your lessons – such as they become a lot more tense, even if the teacher is working hard not to take their stress out on students.”

If teachers are regularly off sick from stress it can cause disruption to classroom teaching, disrupting the teaching of the curriculum and the continuity of the student-teacher relationship.

Work stress can also have an impact on teachers’ personal lives: “Breakdown in relationships and not having a social life are common when teachers are stressed,” Ms Lovewell said.

The warning signs

While it is normal to experience a certain amount of stress in life, teachers need to be aware of the warning signs that signal they should seek help.

Irritability, being easily upset, difficulty sleeping, dwelling on mistakes and increased use of stimulants such as alcohol are all signs of stress, Mr Stanley warned. So too are feelings of hopelessness, high blood pressure, low mood, extreme tiredness and being regularly in tears. All of these things should be indicators that support for stress is necessary.

Managing and preventing stress

Teachers experiencing severe stress may consider visiting a GP to talk about their concerns. Teacher support organisations can also give advice on ways to manage stress, including the Education Support Partnership and the Teacher Sanctuary.

There are also simple measures teachers can take to help alleviate and/or prevent stress. Mr Stanley recommends that if a teacher is feeling overwhelmed by their workload they should resolve to “do the three most important things you need to do that day and leave the other tasks for another day, to help make you feel in control again”.

Keeping a journal when you’re faced with stressful situations can help you reflect on the best ways of tackling workload issues, he added.

Ms Tunks believes it is important for teachers to put limits on their workload: “The more you do the more you’ll get so try not to work from home, have weekends off, and try to be less of a perfectionist as lessons don’t have to be perfect,” she advised.
Hearing others people’s problems can put your own into perspective so “trust your colleagues and engage in their issues and they will be likely to engage with yours, which can help you feel less stressed,” Mr Stanley continued.

Stress can make you feel angry so it is important to learn how to deal better with your anger, Mr Stanley advised: “Learn how to cool down, and how to calm yourself. Think about solutions to the problems you’re facing and ask for advice from others.”
While it can be tempting when stressed to turn to junk food or stimulants such as alcohol as a quick fix, Ms Lovewell emphasises the importance of healthy eating – such as a high protein breakfast – to give the body energy.

Regular exercise should also be part of a teacher’s timetable she believes, and it can be helpful to have a “teaching buddy” to exercise with to spur you on to commit to staying active.

Of course, teaching isn’t always stressful – sometimes people are stressed in their personal life or it’s a combination of stresses within teaching and at home. But as Mr Stanley says, “to make teaching rewarding and less stressful, far more attention needs to be paid to teacher’s wellbeing – and that includes governors, school heads, and teachers themselves”.

  • Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance journalist and former secondary teacher.

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