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9th March 2011

When work-stress leads to illness

I regularly receive emails and letters from teachers who have experienced stress-related illness and when I speak to groups of teachers, there is usually at least one who stays behind afterwards to tell me their story. Everyone’s experience is unique, but having heard hundreds of such accounts, it is impossible not to see some patterns.  

The first common feature is that the victims of illness are almost all conscientious people.  They care about their work and want to do their best for those they teach.  They typically work long hours in trying to meet the demands of the job. As I explained in an earlier blog, there is no limit to the things a teacher can do, or be asked to do, in attempting to help pupils.  So, our typical victim will find themselves working longer and longer chasing growing demands.  Eventually this becomes unsustainable.  There must be a point beyond which working for longer hours leads to a worse outcome.

What precipitates the descent into illness is usually a ‘crisis’ event in the teachers life. This may be work-related or personal.  These events, like a family bereavement, may be perfectly manageable for most people but, for a teacher working ‘on the edge’ this may be the trigger that leads to severe depression. However, the ‘trigger’ is more usually a work-related crisis.  

Teachers who overwork have little time for anything else in their lives and they often sleep badly because of ‘worry’ about uncompleted tasks.  For these tired and anxious teachers relationships can begin to break down and the conflicts with pupils, which most teachers face as a regular basis, may become more difficult to handle.

Confrontations sometimes lead to the teacher ‘losing control’ and saying or doing something deemed inappropriate by those leading the school.  In some cases simply shouting at child may be enough to precipitate formal measures against the teacher.

In other cases the over-stressed teacher may simply find themselves more vulnerable to events that all teachers face, like a false accusation or a pupil assault. Somehow pupils can sense when a teacher is not coping.  Unfortunately there will be a few who exploit this weakness.

It must be remembered, that most of these teachers have many years of very successful practice and often hold senior positions within a school. However, unless those who manage the school are adequately trained to deal with such crises, things will soon move on from bad to worse. This is when serious illness can develop.  In my next blog I’ll explore how such ‘trigger’ events are handled and the difference good managers can make.