What pushes your button?

March 2011


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Workplace stress can hit teachers hard. WAYNE ERB finds out the first thing to do is identify the cause.

“Some teachers are for whatever reason sometimes under considerable stress,” states the policy manual of a secondary school, accessed by Education Review through the school website.

These words may sound like a statement of the obvious, but they do acknowledge the challenges teachers can face.

The college in question has a policy of reducing work hours and providing access to counselling for overwhelmed teachers. Creating a safe and healthy workplace is a legal requirement, and according to the Department of Labour, this includes managing stress. It even issued a 20 page booklet on doing just that.

Workplace stress is defined by the department as “the awareness of not being able to cope with the demands of their work environment, with an associated negative emotional response”.

It’s a broad definition in need of a few adjectives. Ever reached the end of the day and felt upset, depressed, frustrated, drained, angry, or tired?

Stress feels different for everyone and the triggers vary too. Recognising that, health and safety legislation puts an onus not just on employers to reduce causes of stress but also on workers to tell their employers about the stress they are experiencing. That way, something can be done.

You’ll get the same approach from professionals who advise on work issues. Rod Berry is general manager of EAP Services Ltd, which employs counsellors, psychologists and other staff to work with clients referred through employee assistance schemes.

His company has about 120 schools and education providers on the books. On average, about five to seven per cent of the education provider’s staff will use EAP Services in any one year.

Rod says because stress is so subjective it’s not something that his staff tackle directly.

“Some stress can be a driver for people. For me personally manageable stress drives me – it keeps me motivated and focused. But stress might not suit you.”

Instead, his staff help clients to identify the cause of stress.

“If a teacher refers to their EAP and the issue is stress, we try to determine the causes.”

Berry says EAP staff help you work through your options for making change. They’ll suggest you talk with your manager or head teacher about the causes and solutions.

He says there are warning signs when stress is too great to leave the issue unaddressed.

These may include antagonism with other staff, altercations with a manager, trouble sleeping, and reliance on alcohol or drugs. A common sign is increased absenteeism – taking more so-called ‘mental health days’ to get over the stresses of the classroom.

“There’s a whole lot of little things that will happen when a person is trying to cope with a situation that they feel is outside their control,” says Berry.

He has two pieces of advice for everyone. The first is to strive for work-life harmony before you hit crisis point.

“If you spend 20 hours at work and see your family for one hour, something’s got to give and in the cases we see through here, it’s sometimes the family.”

Secondly, if making changes to your working conditions does not reduce chronic stress, you may actually be in the wrong job.

“Workplace stress is sometimes the result of people doing work they lack the qualifications or experience for, or are not capable of doing. Re-evaluating the reasons for working is often the result.”