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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 March, 2004, 00:09 GMT
Is teaching the most stressful job?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
Whingers, grumblers, moaning minnies: it seems that's the way many people outside education regard teachers.

This week's analysis of calls to the Teacher Support Line, showing one teacher in 15 called for help last year, produced a very divided response.

Teachers told BBC News Online theirs was one of the toughest professions, while non-teachers were mostly unsympathetic, saying "get out into the real world".

So is teaching any more stressful than other jobs?

Well, despite the doubters, it seems there is evidence which suggests it is.

A few years ago the Health and Safety Executive published a report from Cardiff University which, among other things, compared stress levels in different occupations.

Some of the more sceptical non-teachers among you might say it proves nothing except that teachers complain more than others

The study - The scale of occupational stress - found that 20% of people reported high levels of stress at work. Yet among teachers the rate was double that.

Indeed teachers topped this particular league table, with 41% reporting high levels of stress.

The next highest was nursing at 31% then "managers" at 27%.

Interestingly the more people earned, and the higher their level of educational qualifications, the more likely they were to feel under stress.

(As an aside, I was interested to note that the least-stressed group was those working in "moving/storing". In my student days I worked as a removal man and, except when the client wanted the piano put into an upstairs bedroom, it was indeed fairly stress-free. Mind you, it was pretty bad for back-ache.)

Now of course this survey was based on people's self-evaluation of stress. So some of the more sceptical non-teachers among you might say it proves nothing except that teachers complain more than others.

But while it would be impossible to prove which job category is the toughest, even the doubters must admit that if teachers are complaining in large numbers they must be unhappy about their work. And it is perception that counts when discussing stress.

Nor should the problem be dismissed, even if others think teachers are exaggerating it.

This is not a competition for who works the most days or the longest hours
For if teachers feel unhappy at work this will have an impact on the children they teach, as well as on recruitment and retention levels, not to mention the cost of cover for sick leave.

So those who point to teachers' long holidays are missing the point.

This is not a competition for who works the most days or the longest hours, or even who is under the greatest pressure to deliver results, but rather about the state of mind of employees.

And on that score, it seems, teachers' state of mind is often not a happy one. The fact that nursing is close behind might suggest some possible causes.

Teachers and nurses both work in highly structured, hierarchical workplaces where there is a lot of public sector accountability and a lot of face-to-face contact with the public.

Conflict

So which of these characteristics is the biggest cause of stress? E-mails to BBC News Online seemed to cite pupil behaviour as a major cause of the problem.

Among those taking that view were people who worked in schools but not as teachers. A school office worker and an IT manager both said they could not put up with the abuse teachers face from pupils.

Yet pupil behaviour was not the biggest reason for calls to the Teacher Support Line.

The biggest single category for work-related stress calls was "conflict".

Last year, 5,382 teachers turned to the helpline because they were in conflict with either their manager, a colleague, a parent or a governor. Only about half this number had called because of problems with pupil behaviour.

I don't mean by this to minimise the effect of pupil indiscipline on teachers. Other surveys have suggested this is a major cause of their leaving the profession.

But sorting out pupil behaviour is an issue which goes beyond schools to wider social changes and the decline in respect for authority.

By contrast, resolving problems with managers and colleagues (which together made up 91% of the "conflict" concerns) do lie within the capability of schools.

England v France

Perhaps at this weekend's head teachers' conference, there should be some discussion about why school staff feel their managers are a major cause of their stress and anxiety.

One other reflection is prompted by reading about a study which compared teacher stress in England and in France.

The report* surveyed 800 teachers and found substantially different responses: 22% of sick leave in England was attributed to stress, as opposed to 1% in France.

More than half of the English teachers as opposed to a fifth of the French sample reported recently having considered leaving teaching.

Despite these differences, both English and French teachers cited classroom behaviour, low social status and lack of parental support as causes of stress.

So why the difference in stress levels? French teachers certainly work shorter hours and are not expected to be in school except when they are timetabled to teach.

A similar approach is taken in other countries. In Russia, for example, teachers choose a contract which specifies how many hours teaching they must do.

Perhaps this is one solution: greater flexibility over contract hours with teaches encouraged to get out of the school (and away from the others in the staff-room) when they are not timetabled to teach.

Perhaps that is the secret of the French teachers: an hour with Year 9, then down to the café or bar for an hour before returning, relaxed, for the next class?

*Cited in the newsletter of the International Stress Management Association


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.




SEE ALSO:
Teachers report staffroom strife
25 Mar 04  |  Education


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