Reducing the negative effects of workload: tackling stress

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Rights and conditions
02 November 2016
We all experience pressure regularly, it can motivate us to perform at our best. It is when we experience too much pressure and feel unable to cope that stress can result.

Estimates suggest that one in three people of working age are suffering from stress, depression or anxiety to a level they believe is making them ill. Stress is the second largest cause of occupational ill health in the UK.

The cost of stress is often hidden. Studies show that people suffering from stress do not perform at their optimum. This can in turn impact on student attainment. Conversely, a commitment to tackling stress is a commitment to high student attainment. It makes sense that happy, motivated staff will have a positive effect on the performance of students. Employers are also required by law to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities and to take action to control that risk.

Top tips for dealing with too much stress

  1. Keep a diary. Keeping a diary for a couple of weeks can help you pinpoint the stress points in your life, be they events, times, places, people or simply trying to do too many things at once. Once you have identified your stress points you can use the following techniques to try and mitigate their effects.
  2. Talk. Talk through your diary with your partner or a good friend; just discussing things can often make people feel better. If the problems that you have identified occur largely in the workplace talk to your headteacher or principal to see if anything can be done to help.
  3. Learn how to relax. Practice deep-breathing techniques. Slowly inhale while counting to five, hold your breath for five seconds then breathe out slowly. Repeat this 10 times when feeling stressed, concentrating on nothing but your breathing.
  4. Stretching. Stretch the muscles of your neck and shoulders by keeping your shoulders level and trying to touch each shoulder with your ear. Look up at the ceiling, then down at the floor and then rotate each shoulder in a wide circle. Repeat five times.Open and close your jaw widely after each exercise since stress often causes tension in the jaw area.
  5. Take time out. For five minutes every hour, try to 'shut down' and think of nothing but your perfect situation. This could be a dream holiday or simply thinking about doing nothing at all. You will be surprised at how effective this can be at lowering stress levels. At home, a warm bath (especially on cold winter nights) will gently warm and help relax you.
  6. Exercise regularly. You do not have to be a gym freak to get the stress-beating benefits of exercise. Even 20 minutes of brisk walking three times a week will help to reduce stress as well as promoting restful sleep. Yoga and Tai Chi are both excellent ways of relaxing.
  7. Get a good night's sleep. Many people experience difficulties with sleeping during their lifetime and stress is one of the common causes. Tips for aiding a good night's sleep include: regular morning and bedtime schedule; plan/prepare for next day to 'dump' worries before bedtime; getting fresh air; avoiding stimulants like tea, coffee in the evenings; and, eat a balanced diet.

It is important that the well-being agenda is not just 'yet another thing to do' on top of everything else. It is education in action, getting things right at the outset so that a healthy culture permeates the school or college and into the lives of the learners. There is good evidence that teacher well-being significantly contributes to students' results. Research from the Work Foundation at Lancaster University highlights that staff well-being makes a marked difference to exam grades – up to 8% difference in all phases (useful information to include in conversations with leadership around the effects of workload on staff well-being and ultimately on pupil results).

Although education staff routinely face many circumstances that might be considered stressful, it is important to understand that work-related stress doesn't have to be accepted as simply a hazard of the job. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, your employer has a duty of care towards you, which means managing stress within the workplace.

Risk assessments for stress

Work-related stress should be considered a health and safety hazard like any other and therefore, to minimise the potential for stress, employers should carry out a risk assessment. This should include:

  • looking for pressures at work that could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress, e.g workloads, dealing with disruptive pupils/parents
  • deciding who might be harmed
  • deciding whether enough is being done to reduce the harm, once it is identified as a potential risk to staff.

The HSE's Stress Management Standards may also be useful in conducting risk assessments for stress. Assessments should be reviewed to ensure they are effective. Employees and safety representatives should be involved at every stage of the assessment process.

Stress Management Standards

In November 2004 the Health and Safety Executive issued the Stress Management Standards. The Standards demonstrate good practice and encourage employers, employees and representatives to work together to tackle the key causes of stress.

These causes are listed as:

  • Control - how much say staff have over their work.
  • Support - the encouragement and resources provided by management.
  • Demands - workload, work patterns and work environment.
  • Relationships - such as having to deal with conflict or unacceptable behaviour.
  • Change - how organisational change is managed.
  • Role - for example dealing with conflicting roles.

The standards are a yardstick against which organisations can measure how well they are dealing with these factors and provide guidance on stress risk assessments. For lots more information see www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards.

Stress factsheet