This post has been written by Classroom Secrets
This week (4th – 8th November) is International Stress Awareness Week. Up until 2018, there was just a day rather than a week, and perhaps the extension reflects the growing problem of stress in our working lives. The International Stress Management Association say that they created the week to “raise awareness about stress prevention and the importance for individuals and organisations in order to ensure that those who are suffering from stress know where to go to seek advice”. The theme this year is ‘Resilience; The Power to Succeed’. I must admit to having mixed feelings about this. I’m more than happy, of course, to see stress highlighted as a major blight upon our lives, but putting the onus of ‘building resilience’ onto individuals makes me a little edgy. Much like the ’battle’ against cancer, it comes with an implication that those of us who have become overwhelmed and ill with the unreasonable demands placed upon us, just needed to learn how to be a little more ‘resilient’ and they would have been ok. I would argue that it’s just not as simple as individuals ‘building resilience’. Yes, it cannot be denied that if you are in good physical health, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and exercise, and giving yourself the luxury of time to unwind and socialise with friends, you are going to be better equipped to cope with the pressure placed on you, but where is the employers’ responsibility here? If the number of people suffering from stress is increasing year upon year, how long can we keep on building our resilience?
According to the HSE, work-related stress and anxiety is the leading cause for ill health and sickness absence in Britain. A report published last year says that 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/2018 with an average of 25.8 days lost per case. In total, 57% of all working days lost to ill health were due to stress and anxiety. I also take issue with these figures. They provide an indication of how many working days were lost, but not how many non-working days were lost too. How many weekends and holidays were ruined? How many relationships didn’t survive? How many of our children were denied the full attention from their parents that they deserved? And guess which sector came out top in workplace stress? Education, followed by health and social work.
I’m not going to write about why education scores so highly in terms of stress. Those of us who were, or still are teachers, don’t need to be told why the job is so stressful. Here at Classroom Secrets, most of us on the production team were teachers before making the move into resource creation. In a way, I feel as though I have dealt with my own workplace stress by finding a new career, like many of my colleagues, although there are some amazing individuals who manage to combine a part-time teaching career with resource production. The implication of ‘building resilience’ is that we didn’t try hard enough, and I resent that implication.
HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. There are a number of factors that affect our ability to cope with stressful situations. Genetics has a part to play here, as does a history of trauma or abuse in our past. But perhaps more fundamentally when it comes to workplace stress, surely our employers have to take some responsibility for piling on the pressure in the first place?
No matter where the stress arises, the physical response is exactly the same. The body is hard-wired to react to a stressful incident with a fight-or-flight response. Useful to protect you from threats from predators, but less so in the workplace. When encountering a perceived threat, the hypothalamus at the base of the brain sets off an alarm system triggering the release of a concoction of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances the brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
The body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, the heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. The problem arises when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. It is this long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all of the body's processes. This poses an increased risk of many health problems, including:
There is no doubt that long-term stress can make us ill, and by all means we should try to improve our own mental and physical health so we have a healthy resilience to stress. There are a multitude of resources to tell you how you could approach this and the NHS provides a good starting point here. But in my opinion, it is also essential that as a sector, we stop accepting more and more increases to our already far-too-long-working-week and start putting pressure on our school leaders to remove some of the pressure that makes us too ill to continue with the careers that we loved.
So when our education system is properly funded… when our class sizes reduce… when there are at least two fully qualified teachers to share the teaching load of a class… when every single assembly is not filled with an intervention group of one sort or another… when marking doesn’t have to be done in three coloured pens…when class teachers don’t have to lead assemblies or after school clubs…when every class has a full-time teaching assistant… when breaks and playtimes are covered by supervision staff instead of teachers… when teachers don’t have to spend ridiculous hours filling in tracking data or filing subject leadership reports to the governors…when teachers are left to get on with the job of teaching…then I’ll talk about building resilience. Until then, let’s stop the victim-blaming culture and develop some real strategies to combat stress in our schools.
As well as creating quality resources across many subject areas to help take away some of the pressure, Classroom Secrets campaigns for a better life-work balance in order to reduce these unacceptable risks to your health. If you haven’t already done so, please join the thousands of teachers who have completed our work-life balance survey to help us campaign for a better way of doing things.