The words ‘stress leave' and ‘mental health day' seem increasingly prevalent in teachers' conversations and are apparently widely accepted as part of the profession.
Commonly cited stressors for teachers include heavy workloads, managing the behaviour of students, feeling pressure to be perfect, and never having enough time. Stress has negative effects not only on teachers' wellbeing, but on broader school outcomes such as absenteeism, burnout, weaker behaviour management and negative school climate/culture (von der Embse, Ryan, Gibbs, & Mankin, 2019).
There are a number of coping strategies that can help teachers deal with stress effectively. Dr John Malouff – Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New England – and I recently discussed how I deal with stressors as a full-time temporary teacher in my first year working in a rural New South Wales public school.
I use a few different methods to deal with stressors, including seeking social support. John and I created a short video of us talking about how I seek social support as a coping method.
Our video is part of a new international project called Coping Methods for Teachers to provide teachers with empirically supported strategies for coping with stress. As part of the project, centred at the University of Malta, psychologists in various nations including Malta, Lithuania, Portugal and Australia, will each interview a local teacher about his or her use of a specific coping method.
Seeking social support
Seeking social support is one of the coping strategies I use. It can be daunting, both for people who feel as though they are burdening their friends and family, and for those who want solitude after a day at the chalkface. However, in my experience the benefits of seeking social support outweigh the initial discomfort of vulnerability.
Potential positive effects include strengthening relationships with your supporter, receiving useful advice (Greenglass, 1993), receiving unconditional support/love, experiencing positive feelings after being listened to and lowering feelings of burnout (Ferguson, Mang, & Frost, 2017).
Here are some tips on how to seek social support that have proved to be successful strategies in my own experience.
Deciding where to seek support: If the stressor is school-specific, seeking support from colleagues can be effective as they understand the situation and can offer advice particular to that student, class or element of practice. At times, I seek social support from friends and my partner. They can help to put stressors in perspective and offer support and understanding at a more personal level.
Starting the conversation: I try to approach friends or colleagues at a time when they are not too busy, and we are alone. I often start with, ‘I'd like to tell you about something that happened today,' or ‘I've been feeling stressed about…' Other times I will ask how their day is going and listen to them first before sharing. I tell them about specific things that are causing me to feel stressed and often try to verbalise the way I feel: overwhelmed, inadequate, frustrated, etc. I try to also discuss positive experiences to give a balanced perspective and stop them from viewing me as pessimistic. When seeking social support from friends I am careful to maintain student confidentiality.
Accept advice graciously: In seeking social support, I sometimes ask for advice. I have found that asking for advice, especially from other teachers, can be the best way to address the stressor so that it doesn't continue to arise. For example, if I am struggling to manage the behaviour of one or two students, asking for advice on strategies may help me to overcome that stressor rather than to simply feel better today only to have the same problem arise tomorrow. Not all advice is good advice and I choose to act on some suggestions and not on others – either way, I am careful to accept others' advice graciously and thank them for it so that they feel they have helped me (rather than feeling dismissed).
Reciprocate: As often as I seek social support, I offer it to others. I make sure to listen to my partner when he's had a bad day and listen to and offer advice to colleagues when they are feeling stressed. In reciprocating social support, my personal and professional relationships are made stronger by a shared sense of trust and equal support.
Thank the person: At the end of the conversation, I say something like ‘Thanks for listening to me – it has helped,' or ‘Thank you for your advice. I feel better now.' In communicating my gratitude, I acknowledge that my friend or colleague has helped me, which I think makes them feel good about their efforts and makes them more likely to support me again.
Seeking social support is a strategy that works for me, and other teachers find success with other strategies. Our video interview is the first in the project. Additional international interviews will detail coping strategies – including mindfulness, maintaining a growth mindset and strengthening collegiality – to provide teachers with practical examples of how other teachers tackle stress. Videos from the project are available at the Coping Methods for Teachers YouTube channel.
Ferguson, K., Mang, C., & Frost, L. (2017). Teacher stress and social support usage. Brock Education Journal, 26(2), 66.
Greenglass, E. R. (1993). The contribution of social support to coping strategies. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 42(4), 323-340.
von der Embse, N., Ryan, S. V., Gibbs, T., & Mankin, A. (2019). Teacher stress interventions: a systematic review. Psychology in the Schools, 56(8), 1328–1343.
How often do you make time to focus on your own wellbeing?
What strategies do you use to cope with the pressures of your role?
Does your school have a wellbeing policy for staff, as well as students?