The Reality of Stress Illnesses in Schools

Hundreds of people in the teaching profession every year break down under the strains.  Globally the teaching profession is recognised as imposing high levels of metal and psychological strains.  The consequences of this in modern Australia are becoming increasingly stark as the data on the numbers of principals and teachers experiencing psychological breakdown – and the scale of losses of productive life years and the unsustainable total costs – are coming into focus.

The past practice of accepting such losses as inevitable is no longer workable.

Worksafe Victoria has launched an audit enquiring into the work-related stressors in the Education sector.  In the year 2016-17 the Psychological Operations audit team will visit virtually every school and there will certainly be recommendations for actions in schools and other recognised human services sectors to reduce the toll.

The ongoing and long term study of the health of Australian School Principals in 2016 reported increasingly abusive encounters, and physical assault by parents. (See this report HERE.)

We are coming to recognise the fact that it is not an isolated event when someone we have known in the profession commits suicide.  During 2016 the first case of a dedicated principal who in quiet despair committed suicide was recognised by WorkSafe as a work- related death and his dependents were compensated.  (To see the article by Henrietta Cook (The Age October 23, 2016 CLICK HERE.)  Apart from his family, his colleagues and the school community are still trying to come to terms with this loss.

In our workshops on scoping the OHS Risks in schools and considering what needs to be done for effective controls, the issue of mental stress is nominated by virtually every participant. We ask participants in our OHS courses from schools and colleges, to assess the likelihood and severity (ie the risk) of psychological illness in the teaching profession and to identify the measures that should be in place to prevent or mitigate psychological illness. They conclude that the risk is indeed high and the risk reduction measures are inconsistent.  Some places are more supportive and aware than others, but the overall program to prevent is ranked as poor and ineffective.

Schools are very busy places, with many demands upon their staff to simultaneously implement the day to day teaching and learning programs – and cope with multiple new initiatives all of which usually mean more work and have to be implemented within the existing facilities, staffing and funding.

Clearly there are significant sources of fatigue, workload issues and role conflicts and other diagnosable organisational stresses.  It is on these aspects that Worksafe’s Audit team is initially focusing.

However, it is the additional interactions between these specific organisational stressors and the stresses of life, aging parents, adolescent children, divorce, death of spouse etc combined with the difficulties of trying to deal with increasingly disruptive and aggressive and/or withdrawn and unreachable students.

Education is a key to having a decent life, an opportunity for some equality and we enter the profession motivated at least in part by altruistic hopes for children and our broader society.

The profession of teaching, at its best, is a very a rewarding career as we facilitate insights and skills – and whatever else it is a multifaceted and ongoing series of human engagements.

Described as a particularly emotional form of labour, teaching requires teachers to invest their energies every day, mustering and combining their physical and intellectual resources, emotional intelligence and awareness as they intentionally introduce subjects, materials and concepts to interest and develop with young people, the range of enabling capabilities they will come to rely on.

The preparation for the difficulties teachers will face is far from adequate.

Modern schools and the people working in them are somehow expected to accept, manage, contain and transform for the better, the many children and adolescents who bring the consequences of complex adverse trauma into the classroom.

This can – and often in reality, does – confront a well-intentioned teacher with children whose brains have been changed and who have little or no capacity to engage and to learn in a work environment.  The ability of these children is seriously diminished, disruptive and potentially violent.

For teachers, this means a loss of agency, of mastery over the work, and increasing exhaustion, torment and disquiet.  For too many, it undermines their physical and psychological health.

OSHA Ed advocates (unlike other fragmented approaches), are programs that work with the whole school on the recognising and dealing with the three sources of significant stress – Organisational, Personal & Life – and the difficulties of sustaining meaningful work in the face of relentlessly disruptive and aggressive students and parents.  Such a program is practical, well researched and – given the professional development support and intelligent curriculum inputs – has been shown to make a significant difference.