Managing Work-Related Stress: The Ultimate Guide for School Leaders 

In this guide, we consider the steps that school leaders can take to manage work-related stress in school, improving staff morale, performance, and retention.
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April is recognised as Stress Awareness Month, an opportunity to open the conversation on the modern-day stress epidemic and its effect on our mental health. This year’s theme is #LittleByLittle, which highlights the transformative impact of consistent positive actions on our overall wellbeing. In this guide, we will explore both the small and significant steps that school leaders can take to tackle work-related stress in school. 

As school leaders, it’s important to raise our awareness of stress and the toll this can take on our employees’ physical and mental health. Stress can have a huge impact on an individual’s behaviour, performance, and relationships with both colleagues and pupils. It is also one of the leading causes for long-term absence in the UK workforce with more than three-quarters of organisations reporting staff absences due to stress in the past year. Therefore, taking steps to manage work-related stress is not only beneficial for employee wellbeing, but for the success of your pupils and your school as a whole.  

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. When we are stressed, our body releases adrenaline, known as the “fight or flight” hormone, which makes us more alert and motivates us to act quickly.  

This is a result of our evolutionary history, where the main sources of stress were short-lived, intense, physical stressors. For example, imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors trying to escape a predator, or hunting down prey so they didn’t starve. These life-or-death situations would require an intense physiological response in order to survive. Through the process of natural selection, our bodies have been fine-tuned to deal with these types of short-term stressors.  

The problem, however, is that the stressors we experience today are often ongoing. Whether it’s a problem with our careers, bills, or family relationships, when we worry about these things, our bodies turn on the same physiological response. But in these scenarios, “fight-or-flight” isn’t usually an instinct we can act upon, so the hormone remains in our systems for longer, which is detrimental to our health. Meanwhile, the problem remains unresolved, which can make us feel even more stressed. Unfortunately, our bodies have not evolved to deal with these endless mental stressors. This long-term stress can have disastrous consequences on our mood, wellbeing, and relationships, and can even result in stress-related disease.  

As our understanding of stress continues to grow, more and more organisations are considering how they can reduce stress and promote resilience for a healthier, happier workforce, which ultimately boosts productivity and engagement.  

Why are teachers stressed?

Findings from the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index show that 78% of education staff in the UK are stressed. This breaks down to 95% of headteachers, 89% of senior leaders, and 78% of school teachers. Over a third of education staff have experienced the symptoms of burnout, whilst 20% have experienced signs of acute stress.  

As we know, there are many elements of teaching that can affect job satisfaction and wellbeing – including accountability pressures, workplace relationships, and behaviour policies. But what exactly is the cause of teacher stress?  

Research tells us that teachers who have a reasonable workload and supportive leadership are less likely to be stressed. Notably, workload was measured not by the number of hours worked, but by whether staff perceived tasks as a hindrance to their teaching. Researchers defined “supportive leadership” as leaders who use their influence and direction to help teachers achieve their work goals, such as offering support and providing opportunities for teachers to participate in decision making.  

Whether it’s the burden of data management, or a lack of training opportunities, we can conclude that the main drivers of stress for teachers are the things that prevent them from doing what they do best: educating pupils.  

How does management style contribute to teacher stress?

As shown by the research, senior leadership teams play a crucial frontline role in supporting staff with their health and wellbeing. But some leaders can struggle with this aspect of the job. We should consider that often, they are promoted to leadership due to their prowess as a teacher and may have little experience in people management – which can be quite different to managing a classroom!  

A lot of the time, school leaders are expected to learn on the job and pick up new skills as they go – and, of course, many of them do. But this usually relies on trial and error, which can be a long, and perhaps complicated, process. As supportive leadership has been identified as one of the main factors helping to reduce stress in schools, greater emphasis should be placed on investing in management training and wider wellbeing initiatives. This will equip school leaders with the skills to manage work-related stress and cultivate a more positive working environment.  

What can you do to manage work-related stress in your school?

  • Consider annual employee stress risk assessments for all employees  

This will allow you to identify stressors in the workplace and take action to address them proactively rather than reactively when an individual has reached crisis point. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides a stress policy template, action plan template, and a worked example, which can be used as a starting point to evaluate the risks in your school. 

  • Appoint employees as Mental Health First Aiders 

Having a number of your employees professionally trained as Adult Mental Health First Aiders will help create a wider understanding of mental health in the workplace and ensure early intervention can be delivered where a need has been identified. This will provide a safe space for employees to seek guidance and be signposted to appropriate support, whilst allowing you to strategically identify any patterns or trends in staff wellbeing.  

  • Review your school policies and procedures  

Your commitment to staff wellbeing should be reflected in all school policies and procedures and should align with your school’s ethos and values. This will help to create a positive working environment and a culture where employees feel cared for and valued. Policies should be regularly reviewed and consulted upon with employees to ensure the opportunity for staff voice and feedback.  

  • Invest in line management CPD 

Those with line management responsibilities should have regular access to training and guidance regarding staff management. It is important that those with line management responsibilities have an understanding of school policies and procedures and know where to signpost employees who are experiencing difficulties. In addition, for newly promoted line managers, it is good practice to have a programme of training in place in their first year, including managing difficult conversations, conducting appraisals, and return to work meetings as examples. Having strong and confident line managers will instil trust and confidence in them from staff, which in turn will help manage work-related stress.  

  • Establish clear communication channels 

Open and transparent dialogue helps to create an environment in which employees feel they are heard, valued, and supported. Ensure there are regular opportunities for employees to communicate with teams and line managers – this might include staff or team meetings, one-to one meetings, suggestion boxes, or surveys. Establishing a staff wellbeing committee or champions will also provide a supportive mechanism for staff communication.  

  • Embrace flexible working options 

Flexible working arrangements can help employees achieve a healthier work-life balance, which allows them to fulfil their responsibilities more effectively and have a greater sense of value and contribution. Flexible working doesn’t always mean a reduction in hours, it can also include opportunities to work off-site, staggered start and finish times, attending meetings virtually, or extended permissible reasons to paid time off such as paid wellbeing days.  

  • Create a culture of care 

Wellbeing is an individual responsibility and whilst school leaders have a duty of care for individuals in the workplace, we are all responsible for our own overall wellbeing. School leaders should consider investing in training for employees so they can develop their knowledge and understanding of  recognising the signs of stress and take early action to support themselves and their teams. Continue building upon their knowledge and skills with wellbeing initiatives that reflect their needs, from access to gym discounts and physical fitness opportunities, through to mindfulness training and counselling. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it is important to have a variety of initiatives and interventions available for all employees  

How can we manage stress-related absence in school?

School leaders should ensure that the school’s managing staff absence policy is both adhered to and consistently applied, including conducting return to work interviews and absence review meetings where triggers are met. Those with line management responsibilities should have an in-depth understanding of the policy and also what support mechanisms are available to employees who are suffering with stress-related symptoms. As above, if you implement annual stress risk assessments you will already have an idea of any stress-related triggers that your employees may have and early intervention will hopefully help reduce stress-related absences.  

It is important to keep in mind that stress-related absence could be related to a ‘disability’ as defined by the Equality Act 2010. Although this won’t always be the case, it’s important for school leaders to be mindful of their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability or disabilities; and protect against discrimination arising in consequence of a disability.  

When exploring any potential reasonable adjustments, you may wish to seek medical input, such as a GP report or occupational medical assessment, to inform your decision-making. Examples of reasonable adjustments for stress-related absences can be wide-ranging, but may include consideration being given to a temporary reduction in working hours or responsibilities, additional breaks, access to paid counselling/cognitive behavioural therapies, additional training, extended deadlines, and access to professional coaching/supervision.  

It can be helpful to develop a wellness action plan in consultation with the employee. This can help you to facilitate conversations about contributing factors to their wellbeing, spot the signs when they are struggling, and highlight things that may help. This will also help employees take responsibility for their overall wellbeing whilst creating an opportunity to identify how employers can support this in the workplace.   

How One Education can support your school

Staff absence can have a significant effect on the wellbeing of all employees, not just those who are absent. As we continue to face a significant recruitment and retention crisis, managing work-related stress is more important than ever. By proactively managing work-related stress, school leaders can embed a culture of care which in turn will improve staff morale, performance, and retention. It will also support you in attracting talent to your vacancies and helping both your employees and pupils to thrive.   

Our team of HR experts can work closely with your senior leadership team and/or wellbeing leads to promote staff wellbeing in school. We can help to review your current practices and develop a wellbeing action plan, sharing strategic advice and guidance on how to reduce stress and prevent burnout amongst your staff.  

The Excellence for Wellbeing Award for schools and academy trusts allows you to showcase all your hard work and dedication to promoting and supporting staff wellbeing which is beneficial to your current employees and future employees. Our HR professionals will be there to support you as you work towards a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum award in staff wellbeing.  

Our bespoke programme of line management CPD can support all those in your schools or MAT’s with enhancing their line management and leadership skills. Tailored to your timetable, we can deliver a programme of training sessions across the academic year to ensure that your leaders and line managers have practical advice and guidance on people management.  

If you require any further advice on managing work-related stress, or would like to find out more about how we can support your school, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. A member of our team will be happy to help.  

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