Stress Awareness Month: how schools can tackle mental health issues
During Stress Awareness Month, editor Victoria Galligan speaks to Hitesh Dodhia, Superintendent Pharmacist at PharmacyOutlet.co.uk, about the mental health issues facing the teaching profession.
Hitesh highlights the importance of recognising the signs of stress in staff, and the need for heads to implement better stress management within UK education.
Tell us a little about Stress Awareness Month and what it aims to achieve.
Stress Awareness Month has taken place every April since 1992. First starting in the United States, recognition of the event has spread around the world – today, a huge range of businesses, charities, educational institutions and individuals host events or create content to raise awareness of the initiative.
In short, Stress Awareness Month aims to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions about stress that are prevalent in society. It’s undoubtedly a really important cause to support; statistics suggest that in the UK one in six people in the past week will have experienced a common mental health problem.
Could better stress management in schools improve teacher retention?
There are very few jobs that do not carry their own unique stresses and pressures. But without question, teachers face a significant amount of stress in their profession.
In fact, with 27,500 teachers who trained between 2011 and 2015, already leaving the sector last year, it is essential that schools better manage the stress levels of teachers.
It is important, therefore, that teachers find ways to manage and relieve stress – this responsibility lies with both the individual teacher and the schools they work in. As with mental health more generally, employers today must put support structures in place so that staff have places to turn in order to open up about the challenges they are facing.
The first step is for schools to acknowledge just how common the issue is. The next step is to speak openly about it and ensure suitable processes or systems are in place. Doing so will prevent tensions and stresses from escalating, in turn improving a school’s chances of retaining staff.
What immediate advice do you have for teachers who are suffering from anxiety, perhaps in silence?
There are many things that teachers can do to combat stress or anxiety. The first of which is to open up about the problem – whether they visit a professional, talk with a friend or even keep a diary, finding ways to offload some of their worries is a good method to prevent them building up.
Other good pieces of advice include exercising more, which helps relieve stress; avoiding stimulants such as nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate stress-related issues; and making sure you get plenty of sleep.
But there are other simple things teachers can factor into their day-to-day lives. For example, it has been proven that people can lower stress levels by keeping their personal space tidy. So for a teacher, having a clean, organised desk and classroom can make an immediate difference. Having a good posture also helps – rather than slumping or slouching, keeping more upright has been shown to encourage a more positive mentality.
Yet for those with more serious anxiety or depression, it is important they find a professional to talk to – as required, they can then inform the school of the issue and begin taking the necessary steps to try to overcome the problem.
Around 3,750 teachers were estimated to be off on long-term sick leave last year. What should heads do if they spot early signs of stress in staff?
Stress-related sick days are extremely common in the UK. In fact, in 2016/17 alone 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
For head teachers, it can be very difficult to directly tackle the problem should they spot one of their teachers suffering with stress. After all, not everyone will want to open up about the problem, particularly if it involves admitting a health-related concern to his or her boss.
Ultimately it comes back to the fact that schools must nurture a culture of openness and support around mental health problems. Moreover, by building healthy relationships with their teachers, it is more likely that heads will be approached should a member of staff require assistance.
Should the Government be doing more in terms of healthcare to alleviate stress and make help more readily available?
It is clear that more still needs to be done, not only to raise awareness of mental health problems but also to help people overcome them. And it is something that the public and private sectors must come together to address, with an onus on the Government to find ways of improving this part of the healthcare sector.
At present, accessing psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy or psychiatric care via the NHS can involve long waiting times, in some cases more than 52 weeks. Acknowledging the issue, in January 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May said: “I want us to employ the power of government as a force for good to transform the way we deal with mental health problems right across society.”
The Government made an initial £15million investment for creating better support in the community, which led to 88 new places of safety being created. What’s more, the Government is spending a further £15million to build on this initiative.
But as I say, more needs to be done. Through improving digital channels and developing a greater number of schemes that improve access to healthcare for people with mental health concerns, the Government can help alleviate the barriers that prevent individuals from tackling their stress-related problems.