Stress – let’s talk about it

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The myriad of stress awareness campaigns seem to have little impact on levels of stress – but they must continue says Julian Stanley.

Were you aware that it was Stress Awareness Day at the beginning of this month? Did you remember Stress Awareness Month in April? Perhaps you marked World Mental Health Day in October or Stress Down Day in February? With the myriad of days relating directly to stress and its associated disorders, just how much impact have they had on the general public? Are people less stressed?

New figures, released to coincide with the 15th annual National Stress Awareness Day (November 6), seem to suggest little has changed. Five million people took a day off work in the last year because of stress, the study by Friends-Life revealed. They calculated that £460 million was spent every day covering what some call “wasted wages”.

Younger workers, aged 18 to 25, were the most likely to call in sick, with 24 per cent citing stress as their reason for absence. The most prominent reasons for this included job security, fear of redundancy and money, although this has dropped slightly from previous years. 

Similar research from health insurers Bupa found that almost half of Britons consider themselves to be suffering from stress – 44 per cent of the 10,000 people questioned said they were stressed, with 28 per cent revealing they had felt this way for more than a year, while 27 per cent said that they “regularly felt close to breaking point”. The group most affected were aged between 45 and 54 and more likely to be female.

And statistics from a survey by mental health charity Mind suggest that little has changed in how stress is perceived, particularly in the workplace. They found 42 per cent of respondents believed that in their workplace stress is regarded as a sign of weakness. Nearly half (42 per cent) felt that time off for stress was seen as an “excuse” for something else. 

The teaching profession has also felt the impact of stress, as has been discussed in this column many times. Reports in The Guardian last year indicated a 10 per cent increase in stress-related sickness absence over the last four years among teachers, yet leading figures in the sector continue to question whether teachers are really stressed.

On the face of it, it seems that all the awareness campaigns have had little impression on the nation’s stress levels. Of course, it is unreasonable of me to suggest that campaigns can reduce stress alone. Economic uncertainty, increasing job insecurity and the fast past of change are known contributors to higher anxiety and stress levels.

So why do we continue to promote these days, weeks and months? The answer is simple: because they allow us to talk about the issue. They allow us to create campaigns, set up events and write articles about this vital problem. While much has been done to tackle the taboo of stress in the 15 years since the first National Stress Awareness Day, it is clear that there is still a stigma around admitting you are stressed.

This is particularly true of teachers, who continue to contact the charity admitting they too are at “breaking point”, but are afraid to admit they have a problem. They fear that it could lead to capability procedures or make their job even more insecure. 

They worry about their pupils and the impact that their stress could have on them or their colleagues who must take-up more of the strain if they go off sick. So they remain silent and run the risk of stress and anxiety leading to depression.

Yet with new research from the University of Queensland and the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research in Australia finding that depression is the second leading cause of the global disability burden, it is more important than ever to talk about stress. So awareness days are a vital channel to remind teachers to speak up about stress, so that they can seek the support and help they need.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).


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