There are many jobs that are considered to be ‘high pressure’, and consequently, potentially stressful, but the BBC recently published an article in which it was suggested that teaching is the most stressful profession of all. How can it be that such a worthwhile job creates so much potential for ill health?
“I’m not surprised!” I can hear many of you thinking – but to be honest, I was!
There is plenty of evidence that teaching, and education in general, produces possibly the highest levels of stress related absence of any profession, and that stress plays a large part in the high numbers of teachers who leave the profession every year, some broken and despondent as a result of their experiences. There is also common agreement that changes in the perception of what education is, plays a significant part in making the job harder – a shift towards pupils and students being seen as customers, and the obligation placed on teaching professionals to deliver the goods come what may. Changing social contracts between the young and their parents, changes in family values, shifts in the dynamic of relationships between teachers and students, and ever increasing governmental demands that teaching standards should rise, and examination results improve – all these and more can be said to have added to the stressful nature of teaching, with the sense of control being eroded and replaced with obligation to perform under seemingly impossible circumstances.
And if we think teachers themselves have a hard time, consider that the leaders in education establishments – Head Teachers, School Business Managers, School Business Officers, and their colleagues away from the classroom are statistically almost six times more likely to find themselves on long term absence – often due to stress. Their sense of powerlessness in the face of top down demands for improved results from the education authorities and government, and bottom up demands for resources, complex problem solving, and delicate relationship management places them firmly as the filling in the stress sandwich.
But is it helpful to label teaching as the ‘most stressful profession’, despite the statistics?
Surely serving in the armed forces in active war regions; policing the deprived and violent suburbs of large cities; deep sea diving; espionage; surely these jobs cannot be easier or less demanding?
I fear the label is awarded not based on the pressure of the job, but on the evidence that teaching professionals in general find it harder to deal with it than those in other professions. I can almost hear the uproar that comment stimulates, but bear with me, because I may just be able to offer a glint of light in the darkness for those who struggle.
It is widely acknowledged that some stress is needed to perform well. When demands are felt, we tend to respond by becoming energised, resourceful, focused, clear and decisive. We are stimulated intellectually, lifted emotionally, and enjoy the sense of motivation and success that performing well under pressure gives us. Even more so when the nature of the pressure is something we enjoy or find pleasantly challenging.
It is only when pressure exceeds our ability to cope, that it begins to become unhelpful. Sometimes (I’d even venture, often), we don’t notice until too late that the threshold of our resilience has been passed.
Stress is a natural chemical reaction created by the body in order to deal with situations that are threatening. It’s a primitive programmed physiological response intended to preserve life by aiding survival. Under pressure, chemicals are released into the body to enable the large muscle systems to ready us for three potential responses – to flee, to fight, or to freeze. These chemicals produce heightened arousal in the brain, but shut down systems that are not needed for short term survival. We stop digesting food, we lose interest in reproduction, and can focus only on the immediate. The energy we need is directed to those bodily systems that will keep us alive.
In practical terms, this means we cease to be able to think of complex situations; memory closes down, so we need to create lists of things to do; we feel off our food; permanently agitated as if about to flee; we become so focused we can only do one thing at a time etc
When our ability to cope falls short of that required to resolve the pressures, even by a small margin, we begin to accumulate stress. Over time, the stress builds and we experience the symptoms described above, until, at some point if things do not improve, it becomes unbearable and our whole system breaks down. Chronic stress can destroy lives. It’s a major problem and deserves to be examined honestly.
So, what to do about stress?
In my experience, education professionals tend to focus their coping mechanisms on management and relief, rather than prevention. Traditional stress relief……The levels of alcohol consumption, indulgence in comfort foods, recreational drug taking, sleeping in, and other ways to let off steam, or escape and find time away from the pressures, are commonplace. Thankfully, many head teachers and SBMs can also often be found enjoying sports, hiking, reading, and engaging in other recreations that enable them to escape temporarily from the pressures of their work. But there are many who don’t, sacrificing their relationships, family life, and investment in themselves in deference to budgets, fundraising, resolving staffing challenges and any number of other activities of which there are always a list waiting.
Managing the situation, and finding ways to relieve it are good things to do if feeling stressed, but surely it would be better to become stressed less often in the first place?
“Easier said than done” I hear. I agree, but the best and most enduring solutions are rarely the easiest or quickest in any situation.
Three hard truths
I’m probably not going to be popular, and may even be considered out of touch and insensitive by what I am going to say next. But unless these things are said, they won’t be available for consideration. Since I am not writing to gain approval or popularity, but to help those who suffer under pressure to have better lives, I’m not too worried!
The first hard truth is this: It is not the circumstances you are in, the events you experience, the people you have to deal with, or anything else that happens that creates the stress you feel – it’s you. It is your own reaction to all of these that you are suffering. This may be hard to take, but it’s true. If it were not, then everyone would be equally stressed by the same things, and clearly they are not. You may even know some colleagues who don’t get stressed at all!
In reality, there is no Sabre Toothed Tiger about to eat you, no tribe of bandits about to pillage your village and make off with the womenfolk, nor a biblical flood about to sweep you away.
The reason this is so important is this. The moment anyone attributes the cause of stress to anything, or anyone, other than themselves they absolve themselves of the power to correct it. Unwittingly perhaps, they become a victim, incapable of being calm, resourceful and healthy again until the external factors change or improve.
At a fundamental level, we cause our own stress by knowing what is right, and yet doing what is wrong. Stress is a consequence of incongruence between our emotional and psychological drivers, and our behaviour.
Some will find this proposition unwelcome, challenging, maybe even offensive, but it is also possible to find it liberating. Sometimes the truth really can set you free.
Let’s look at a few examples…
You have a report to produce for Governors, but have yet to make time for it. It is weighing on your mind that you haven’t written it, and the deadline is approaching fast – you know what is right, but aren’t doing it.
You have a member of staff that is struggling and standards of her teaching and class behaviour are slipping. There have been complaints from parents about the way she is talking to pupils. You know you need to talk to this person, and set out corrective actions, but you need quality time to do this properly, so have yet to do it – you know what is right, but aren’t doing it.
Your school is failing to achieve the levels of exam results set by the authorities for an acceptable performance. You have done all you know how to do, taken all the suggested actions, and still the improvements are small. You know that there are other Head Teachers who might have other ways, other suggestions, but it’s embarrassing to ask for help. You don’t like admitting you are struggling, so you soldier on, pushing people harder – you know what is right, but aren’t doing it.
There are nearly always good reasons for not doing things. I find them all the time.
But do we tell ourselves the truth about these reasons? I often don’t.
Perhaps here lies another opportunity to set ourselves free, and move a step closer to reduced stress in our lives? Begin with the truth about how you feel.
- It’s easier to say “I haven’t found the time” than to say “It’s not a priority to me”
- It’s easier to say “I don’t have time” than “I don’t want to do this”.
- It’s easier to say “This person is always hard to talk to” than “I don’t feel confident talking to this person”, or “I don’t feel competent to communicate well with her”.
- It’s certainly easier to say, “This job is so stressful!” than to admit “I feel I’d benefit from finding better ways to deal with this pressure”.
Underlying all the reasons we give ourselves (and others) for not doing things, are simple human emotions such as inadequacy, self-consciousness, embarrassment, motivation, confidence. And underneath all of those lies fear. Fear of failing, being found out, fear of succeeding, being unpopular, unliked, unloved, not being good enough, fear of connection, fear of ostracism. Fear, plain and true.
The second hard truth is this: The real reason we allow ourselves to become stressed is because we lack the courage to be otherwise. Essentially, we lack the courage to do what is right, when we know it is right – and face the consequences.
It’s a simplification of a complex problem, of course it is, but sometimes we have to get to first principles before the obvious appears.
Answer this for your own situation – would your job be easier and less stressful if you had what it takes to:
- Establish your top priorities for success and stick to them, trusting others to deal with more of the routine, and be clear that you would do so?
- Face proactively and with genuine compassion, those who threaten to disagree vehemently, deride you or undermine you?
- Risk being wrong, or in need of learning new things?
These may provide part solutions to the three examples I gave earlier. And they may not – your situation will always be unique, and you may have some development to do before you can enact these – such as developing others to be more responsible, up-skill yourself in expert language and interpersonal skills, or developing a stronger sense of self confidence, but the point is this – these are all within your gift – you can do these yourself. Nothing external has to change.
Finding the courage to be stronger than stress – to be able to cope better under pressure – comes from working on yourself, as much as your professional or managerial skills.
As urgent as it may seem to address the day to day priorities of operational school life, long term sustainable success comes from the foundation of personal leadership – not just yours, but everyone’s in your school.
Being more resilient is sourced from knowing who you are and what you stand for, from self-belief, and knowing and adhering to your principles, from being capable and skilful in all you do. And being OK with who you are. How much priority do we give to creating school cultures for ourselves and staffs that genuinely and effectively upholds these ideals, despite understanding the importance of them for pupils and students?
The more often we are courageous, and learn from the experience – the more risks we take that are considered, worthy, and well assessed – the more self-belief and confidence we enjoy. The deeper and more solid our personal foundation becomes. The more resilient and centred we can be.
Our mistake is in thinking that the opposite of risk is security. Opposite risk sits insecurity, because without risk taking, our own capacity to create security from within is not developed. Risk taking grows us, build self-confidence, and helps us better evaluate what is possible – and what isn’t.
The third hard truth is this: You don’t and can’t control anything, despite a relentless effort to remain in control of everything possible. Control is a cruel illusion we create for ourselves because the alternative is unpalatable – after all, if you don’t have control, who does?!
Well, no-one, actually.
I like to use the analogy of a ship at sea, facing a terrible storm. The captain (that’s you!) is on the bridge, looking out over a raging sea that tilts his ship this way and that. The winds are gale force and building, and in the distance – near the horizon – a tidal wave is frothing and foaming as it closes on your vessel. The crew, best they can, are manning the engines, the steering and the pumps, but the ship is old and maintenance has not been a priority to the owners. Even though the crew are hardworking, there are a few on board who you suspect lack what it takes to weather this storm, and a few who would gladly let the ship sink if they were closer to shore.
Ask yourself, as captain; are you in control of this situation? Can you even begin to be? I would venture not, even though outsiders may expect you to be. You cannot control the weather, the tidal wave, your crew’s reactions, nor their actions. You cannot control anything about this situation.
But you can be ‘in command’? Of what you think, and feel, and say, and do. In fact, this is all you can command totally – yourself. It starts and ends with you. However high pressure your situation, however stormy it gets, no matter what the threats – you cannot control it – you can only be in command. The results you get – how well you weather the storm – is down to how well you command yourself, and through that, others.
Needing to feel relentlessly in control leads to ‘presenteeism’ – a fear of being away from the helm, and the overload that accompanies it. It leads to compromised delegation, stilted staff capability, a reduced span of action and achievements, and more pressure.
Learning how to have self-command – clarity of thinking, emotional maturity and intelligence, courage to act on what is right, and believing in yourself – these are the building blocks of positive volition, the ability to acknowledge and accept the reality of the situation (the good, the bad and the ugly), and yet hold on to your optimism and belief that things can be achieved regardless, that you have what it takes to get the results you want. Without positive volition, efforts become diluted, capabilities not fully deployed, and results compromised.
Being in command doesn’t guarantee anything at all of course, but it does optimise your chances – gives you your best shot.
Coincidentally, being in command, being courageous, being responsible for what we experience – these are not just the building blocks for being resilient to the pressures of school life. They also happen to be the characteristics others look for in their leaders – they enable and encourage clarity, confidence and certainty in those we lead. They are the same qualities that underpin the gentleness and great strength of the finest leaders.
So, why not adopt a proactive wellbeing plan that not only equips you to deal with high pressure more effectively, but also further develops and enhances your leadership foundation?