Stress is one of the most significant hazards of working in the education sector. This article discusses the risk factors that contribute to stress in the education sector their assessment and the interventions to reduce or eliminate stress at source. It provides a guide to a systematic risk assessment (RA), and suggests interventions from which individuals and educational institutions can benefit.
Work-related stress in the education sector: an overview
Stress is commonly defined as a perceived imbalance between the demands made on people and their resources or ability to cope with those demands. It is not a disease but prolonged exposure to it can lead to psychological and physical ill health. Work-related stress is a symptom of an organisational problem, not an individual weakness. A European survey conducted in 2010 in 34 countries with 44,000 workers showed that the education sector was one of the most affected sectors after the Health sector in terms of workers reporting hiding or suppressing feelings (30%) which can result in psychological strain. Men (21%) were more likely than women (16%) to report having been subjected to adverse social behaviour. A survey of 500 schools in Europe showed that stress factors in teachers are primarily reported to be workload and role overload but it is when work conflicts with private life, that teachers‘ wellbeing is more likely to be negatively affected. School teachers with large size classes tend to report higher levels of quantitative demands, work-privacy conflict, noise, voice strain and less opportunity to relax.
Stress is a multifaceted problem and is influenced by factors both inside and outside work. However, the evidence suggests that a poorly managed work organisation and an unfavourable work environment are linked to individuals experiencing stress. It is therefore necessary to assess all aspects of work that can lead to ill health, including work equipment and the physical and social environment. In education, work-related stress is often linked to violence, bullying (mobbing), harassment, and unacceptable student behaviour.
Violence at work is any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted and includes insults, threats and physical or psychological aggression exerted by people against a person at work. Workers in education are more at risk of violence when their jobs involve dealing directly with pupils and/or their guardians; working late or alone; making off-site or home visits; working with children with special needs
Harassment, is defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. Unreasonable behaviour suggests intent to victimise, humiliate, undermine, or threaten. Not only the behaviours or actions of individuals or a group, but also of a system of work, may be used as a means of victimising.
Legally, all employers have a general duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect of their work as highlighted in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC and other regulatory standards.
In 2004, European social partners signed a framework agreement on work-related stress, and in 2007, another agreement on harassment and violence at work, with the aim of increasing awareness and understanding of employers, workers and their representatives, put in place a framework for dealing with these psychosocial issues, workplace harassment and violence.
Assessing and managing psychosocial risks in education
Employers are required by law to carry out an effective risk assessment, and risk assessments in schools and other educational establishments should consider different types of the psychosocial risks present; in particular, work-related stress, harassment, and violence. Depending on the issues facing the particular school, there may be a need for different but complementary approaches for work-related stress, violence, and unacceptable pupil behaviour.
Work related stress is largely preventable by taking appropriate action through conducting a risk assessment which is a systematic examination of aspects of work that could cause injury or harm; whether hazards can be eliminated and, if not what preventive or protective measures need to be in place to control the risks. A risk assessment involves identifying the hazards present and then evaluating the extent of the risks involved, taking into account existing precautions. The results of an appropriate risk assessment should clearly lead to relevant actions to protect workers’ health.
There are key elements to consider when conducting a psychosocial risk assessment. Workers’ involvement is crucial: everyone in the education system, including teachers, pupils, parents, administrators, and safety and health professionals have a role to play in tackling work-related stress and should be involved in the risk assessment process. Since stress is the individual’s subjective evaluation of his/her situation and this varies from one individual to the other, it is not possible to determine from the situation alone the amount of stress it may cause therefore employees must be consulted. Also, employees are the ones who are more familiar with their own job and the ones who will be involved in implementing any changes to it and are, therefore, more likely to suggest the most relevant interventions to tackle specific stress issues. The management of the school or teaching institution needs to support tackling stress in their institution encouraging employees to report any stress-related problems rather than ignoring it until it is too late. They need to provide sufficient resources to carry out the risk assessment and to implement suitable solutions to reduce stress. The risk assessment can be carried out in a stepwise approach comprising five steps:
Step 1: Identify hazards and those at risk
The first step is about understanding how the work is done and how harm could be caused for example, by violence from pupils or students to staff. The education sector has special issues to be considered as its function involves the activities of children and young adults. In finding out who may be harmed and how, which groups of workers are most at risk, it can be helpful to use available data on absenteeism, high staff turnover, aggressive communication, accidents, psychosocial problems (e.g. anxiety, depression, burnout), health problems and complaints from workers, etc. A number of psychosocial hazards or factors are known to lead to stress. The following checklist may be used to indicate where the problem lies. Working environments vary, so this checklist may not apply to all educational establishments and occupations in this sector. If an issue is flagged up in this list, it is important to investigate it further with workers to find out the underlying cause of work-related factors and decide on an action plan.
|Table 1. Checklist for work-related stress in the education sector
|Is there a supportive climate or atmosphere that does not tolerate unacceptable behaviour such as violence and harassment?
|Is there a supportive relationship with pupils/students and parents?
|Are stress, violence, and harassment seen as ’health and safety’ issues?
|Are violence, and harassment by pupils/students, co-workers or non-workers covered in the risk assessment?
|Is there access to occupational health support available, either internally or externally?
|Is training on stress, violence, and harassment prevention given to all staff, including managers, teachers and other staff?
|Are workers involved in the risk assessment and management process?
|Are parents/families involved in the risk reduction process; for example, in setting behaviour standards for students?
|Are dignity and respect towards other people taught to pupils/students and is positive behaviour reinforced?
|Are work equipment and the educational physical environment maintained and monitored; for example, air conditioning, lighting or rest rooms?
|Are excessive demands, workload and frequent needs for overtime monitored; for example, do workers often work late or at weekends?
|Can all workers take regular breaks in designated areas?
|Can workers vary their work?
|Are there any resources or procedures for workers to manage competing roles in their jobs?
|Is there a policy on work-related stress?
|Is there a policy to support and reinforce a positive work environment?
Source E-Facts 31
Particular attention should be paid to groups of workers who may be at increased risk, e.g. workers with disabilities, migrant workers, young and older workers. For example, younger staff can be less experienced, which can be a contributor to work-related stress. People with disabilities may be subjected to harassment, which can lead to work-related stress. Pregnant employees also require a specific assessment.
The risk assessment should cover all workers at educational establishments, including teachers, administrative staff, facility management personnel and maintenance staff, regardless of whether they are employed on long- or short-term contracts. It may also include pupils and visitors to the school, who are directly or indirectly at risk from hazards. Where there are persons employed by another organisation on site, there is a duty on the two employers to cooperate and safeguard the safety and health of workers.
The differences in workers, such as by gender, age, or disability, must be taken into account because different prevention measures may be required for these groups. Work, its organisation, and the equipment used, should be adapted to the worker, and not the other way around. This principle is enshrined in EU legislation.
Existing data collected within the teaching institution such as sickness absence, staff opinion surveys, staff turnover, occupational health referrals and return to work data may help detecting the ‘hot spots’ or problem areas and those most at risks.
Step 2: Evaluate and prioritise risks
This step is about deciding who might be harmed. It might be necessary to collect supplementary data if existing available data is not deemed sufficient to evaluate the risks and take action. This can be done either through valid questionnaires (especially if the risks concern a large number of employees for example all teaching staff of a university), or interviews (teachers in a small-size school). In evaluating the risks arising from the hazards, questions to consider are:
- How likely it is that a hazard will cause harm (e.g. number of teachers reporting high workload, lack of suitable equipment causing further delays, etc.).
- How serious that harm is likely to be (e.g. is there a link between high workload and sickness absence, or health complaints).
- How often (and how many) workers are exposed to the risk.
- List the risks in order of importance.
- Use the list to draw up an action plan.
In evaluating how likely it is that the hazard will lead to harm or injury, and how severe that injury is likely to be, questions to consider are: Can the hazard be removed completely?; Can the risk be controlled?; Can protective measures be taken to protect all?; What emergency procedures are needed in the event of an incident, such as an assault on staff? Problems should be categorised in terms of risk factors: the job, colleagues, external (for example, family), school/pupils/students, organisational, community and societal. Some risk factors may be related to more general community and societal problems.
Step 3: Decide on preventive action
After completing the risk assessment, preventive measures need to be taken in order of priority. Preventive measures should always target the organisation first and individual measures are then to be taken in a second step. Measures to minimise harm in the event of an accident, ill health or emergency ( for example a member of staff being assaulted) should be taken. Interventions should be agreed with the workforce, either directly or through worker safety representatives. Depending on risks identified, to decide on which actions to take, it could be useful to run a few focus groups with a sample of teachers or to discuss the findings of the risk assessment with them in meetings. A wide range of possible interventions to manage stress effectively are presented in section 3.
Step 4: Take action
Effective implementation involves the development of a plan specifying: i) who does what; ii) when a task is to be completed; and iii) the means allocated to implement the measures. The information arising from the risk assessment must be shared with employees. Communication of the findings will ensure that everyone involved in the risk assessment activity, or exposed to the risk, is made aware of actions taken to solve the issues identified.
Step 5: Monitor and review
The agreed solutions should be carefully implemented, monitored and evaluated. Evaluating any action taken to establish what works best, and assessing the effectiveness of all control measures is particularly important when dealing with work-related stress as it is multi-causal, and the situation can change quickly. When a significant change occurs, there is the need to make sure there are no new hazards that need addressing, and to repeat the risk assessment when necessary. For effective and sustainable stress prevention, the teaching institutions should consider assessment and monitoring as a continuous improvement exercise.
The following questions may be useful for monitoring stress at work more broadly.
- Are the risk assessment and preventive measures reviewed regularly?
- Does management monitor the workplace health and safety performance (including for work-related stress and other psychosocial issues)?
- Is there monitoring of organisational indicators of work-related stress such as sickness absence, leave interview data or performance?
- Are measures in place to improve the work-life balance; for example, childcare facilities?
- Are there communication and reporting systems in place?
- Does worker consultation take place before major changes to the workplace or work organisation are implemented?
Document the assessment
The risk assessment for psychosocial risks must be documented as any other risk assessment. Such a record should be used to: pass information to the persons concerned (employees, safety representatives, school management, etc.); assess whether necessary measures have been introduced; produce evidence for supervisory authorities; and revise measures if circumstances change.
Interventions to address work-related stress in education
Since work-related stress can have many causal factors and effects, a comprehensive approach to prevention is the most effective method, being guided by close collaboration between principals, teachers, other workers, pupils, parents groups and community organisations. The key to preventing stress lies with the organisation and management in teaching institutions and include the actions as listed in the following paragraphs
Actions to put policies and support in place
- Develop and implement a written policy on work-related stress. This may be part of a health and wellbeing policy already in place but ensure that stress is mentioned in it.
- Develop additional policies to support and reinforce a positive work environment (flexi-time, etc.).
- Develop actions with students and parents to improve behaviour; for example, putting in place regular breaks and reward programmes.
- Perform annual assessments of work-related stress and its impact.
- Monitor and evaluate the progress of stress risk management programmes.
- Focus on the long-term process of organisational learning as well as short-term benefits (quick wins) so the teaching institution is seen as making serious efforts in reducing stress not just filling forms exercise.
- Use facts and figures to monitor and evaluate any change programmes.
- Carry out audits on violence and harassment.
- Provide childcare facilities and flexible work practices such as job sharing.
- Assess formal and informal communication and reporting lines.
- Establish a system of open consultation prior to making major changes.
- Make stress management part of normal management practice reducing the taboo about stress.
- Work with the local community and the media to promote awareness of the impact of stress on teaching quality and the health of workers, and
- Encourage positive, supportive behaviour.
Actions to improve work organisation and workload
- Raise awareness and train all staff in the causes and solutions for work-related stress.
- Get a commitment at all levels of the teaching institution to tackle work-related stress.
- Frequently review workload, demands and overtime.
- Examine the work patterns of staff.
- Let workers choose their methods, patterns, and pace of work and focus on objectives.
- Ensure constant review and if needed redistribution of workloads and rescheduling of deadlines.
- Review processes for staff management to ensure that workers are not overloaded, as may occur when they are given multiple roles (e.g. class teacher, topic coordinator and student teacher).
Actions to improve the work environment
- Establish a mentoring or coaching scheme for all staff and especially new staff.
- Develop an awareness programme; for example, holding ‘staff wellbeing’ days or producing newsletters and posters.
- Provide training on stress management for all staff (can be done on line).
- Provide training to all teachers working in general teaching in primary and secondary schools and university teaching staff on risk education and the management of OSH to create a safe and healthy work and learning environment.
- Designate a health and safety representative/coordinator knowledgeable about psychosocial issues or set up a steering group to support activities towards the management of stress.
- Reinforce good standards of behaviour.
- Encourage collaborative problem-solving and communication.
- Create opportunities for feedback; for example, give praise and provide constructive, performance-related feedback.
- Build organisation-wide commitment by demonstrating management support, raising awareness and promoting good practice.
- Provide access to occupational health support such as counselling services whether internally or externally.
- Provide training for teachers, covering behaviour management and the teaching skills to deal with difficult behaviour.
- Reward positive attitudes and promote positive role models (both for workers and pupils/students).
- Establish parent-teacher committees and involve them in any change management processes.
- Involve staff in the risk assessment process, for example in hazard identification and suggestions for solutions.
- Involve workers in change management processes.
- Encourage involvement and communication with parents and families.
- Check and maintain the quality of the work environment and equipment.
Actions to minimise stress when introducing institutional changes
- Carry out a risk analysis.
- Undertake thorough planning of preventive actions.
- Combine work-orientated and worker-orientated measures.
- Introduce context-specific solutions.
- Use appropriate external expertise.
- Institute effective social dialogue, partnership, and worker involvement.
- Take sustained preventive actions and enlist senior management support.
Failing to manage risk factors for work-related stress can have important consequences for the quality of service provided to pupils and students, as well as the health of workers. Leadership from management, good work organisation, a positive working climate that fosters respect and dignity, and clear communication between workers and supervisors/colleagues are essential to reducing the risk of work-related stress.
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