April marked “Stress Awareness Month,” and this was key as we reflected back on the last 14 months within the context of the global pandemic. Stress levels throughout this period for most were probably at a level never experienced before, particularly for education staff across the United Kingdom. In March 2021, 82% of teachers described themselves as stressed.
Normal levels of stress are good for us and on it’s own it isn’t always a negative experience. Low and moderate levels of stress are activated when we are experiencing different situations, sometimes alerting us of potential danger. Stress can activate our fight, flight and freeze response, activating a mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to allow our body and mind to manage each situation.
However, excessive stress levels can be a huge challenge for individuals and the wider concern of public health. There still remains a level of stigma around people advising that their stress levels are overwhelming. Research tells us that stress can have close links with other mental health factors, including anxiety and depression. We also know that increased and persistent stress levels, including toxic stress, can impact physical health concerns such as heart disease, digestive problems or issues with our immune system. Being aware of your stress levels can be key to having a healthy body and mind.
The Stress Management Society (www.stress.org.uk) lead the way for this campaign in April and made huge efforts to try and connect people with a number of resources, including a 30-day challenge for people to de-stress across any period moving forward. They advise that it can take this period of time to turn actions into habits, giving people a chance to introduce stress bursting activities into their daily life.
The Stress Management Society conducted some research into pandemic-related stress, with 65% of adults contacted advising they have felt more stressed since the Covid-19 restrictions started in March 2020.
We have been reflecting on stress within our team at the Barnardo’s Education Community and have discussed the stressful periods of time that we have experienced during the pandemic. We spoke of the lack of connection with others being a testing time, particularly during the tightest lockdown restrictions. This likely followed a lack of control over your life for long periods at a time, which for some was the first time they had potentially experienced this. We also discussed feeling lonely and isolated, both of which can really harm your wellbeing and mental health.
When you consider all of these matched together, sometimes all at once, then it is easy to understand why stress levels have never been higher for some within the population. This would have been very notable for education professionals, thrown into situations never experienced before, leading to an immediate increase to the stress response system. The teaching of classes virtually posed issues for some never experienced, the uncertainty around the curriculum, and how secondary pupils will be assessed and the inconsistent messages around building closures have all been concerns shared with us from education professionals.
On recent discussions with education staff, it was also very clear that stress levels were increased through the lack of contact with children and young people that they were concerned about. The concern would be for those living at home in stressful situations, exposed to potential trauma on a regular, if not daily basis. Education and the staff teams play huge roles in the lives of children and young people like this and not having that safe space to connect with trusting adults was a real cause for concern.
Education Support recently conducted a poll with education staff across the UK and it’s findings can be found in the below resources. They have also advised of 8 steps to support stress for education staff, which are detailed below:
- Know your priorities
Be clear about your priorities. Practice holding healthy boundaries that stop you from taking on too much, or committing yourself to work that doesn’t align with your personal priorities. This can make a real difference to your levels of stress and exhaustion. Practice saying no.
- Be aware of what stresses you out
Make a list of events that leave you emotionally drained, with one or two ways to reduce the stress for each. When they occur, use them as an opportunity to practise your stress-reduction techniques and note what works.
- Forgive yourself: don’t dwell on past mistakes
Feelings of guilt, remorse and regret cannot change the past, and they make the present difficult by sapping your energy. Be kind to yourself. Make a conscious effort to do something that brings you joy or peace.
- Don’t bottle up anger & frustrations
Express and discuss your feelings. This could mean addressing difficult situations with colleagues, or talking to a friend who is a trusted sounding board. Just don’t let it fester. Feelings are heavier when you carry them alone.
- Set aside time each day for recreation and exercise
Gentle repetitive exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling are good to relieve stress. Meditation, yoga, pilates and dance are also excellent. Find what suits you best and make it a habit. Hobbies that focus attention are also good stress relievers.
- Take your time
Frenzied activities lead to errors, regrets and stress. Request time to orient yourself to a new task or responsibility at work. If rushed, ask people to wait until you are ready. Plan ahead to arrive at appointments early, composed and having made allowances for unexpected hold-ups.
- Practice gratitude
Try and find something positive about each work day – even the tough ones. Visualise situations you have handled well, and hold those memories in your mind when going into stressful situations.
- Cut down on drinking, smoking, sedatives & stimulants
These vices only offer temporary relief and don’t solve problems. They can create mental and physical health problems in the long term. Consider the affects you are looking for (sedation or stimulation) and how else you can achieve them.
- Samaritans – Need to talk? If stress is getting on top of you and you feel that you would benefit from talking with someone about what you are experiencing, the Samaritans service provides a free, 24/7, emotional support and listening ear service. Click here to visit their website to find out about their free telephone support service and web-based self-help app.
- Education Support have provided an info graphic for managing stress as a teacher: https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/es_handle_stress_fb_1200x1600px_3_0.pdf
- Mind – You can access information and advice from Mind’s helpline services to find out more about stress. Mind also provide the Side-by-Side online community where you can access online peer support and speak virtually with others going through similar experiences to you.
- Shout Crisis Messenger – If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, or that you can’t cope, Shout Crisis Messenger provides a 24/7 text support service. Click here to visit their website to find out more about free support available from crisis volunteers.
- Useful apps – When dealing with stress, you may find relaxation, mindfulness, or self-care helpful. Through our Useful Apps section, you can find out about a range of apps available to support you with your health and wellbeing, click here to find an app to support you today.
- BATOD (British Association of Teachers of the Deaf) article: Taking stress seriously: https://www.batod.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Taking-stress-seriously.pdf