Free article: Understanding and managing workplace stress

Published: Wednesday, 31 October 2018 08:19

Stress continues to be a problem in schools, and can affect individual staff and leaders, as well as the school overall. Andrew Blench considers the different manifestations of stress, and the ways in which different personalities can handle stress to ensure an efficient, productive workplace.

Summary points

  • Stress can manifest itself in many different ways and affects absence, productivity and quality of work.
  • Stress can cause physical and physiological symptoms and schools can benefit from training their staff to recognise their stress levels.
  • Stress management depends on personality types as well as workplace environment. Knowing whether you are a worrier, a perfectionist or a sponge can help you to learn to recognise the unhelpful thought processes that cause stress.

What is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

Elsewhere it has been defined as a ‘demand made upon the adaptive capacities of the mind and body’.

How does it affect productivity?

Over 11 million working days are lost each year because of stress at work. It is important to recognise that someone may be suffering from stress even if they are not signed off work with it, and it is a widespread problem in many schools. Stress can affect various areas of work, such as punctuality and productivity levels. In some cases, staff may become more forgetful or have lapses in concentration leading to uncharacteristic mistakes. There might also be increased levels of grievance and just plain ‘falling out’ with each other, all of which affects the school as a whole as well as individual staff.p18 graph

How much stress is too much?

There is a view that we all need a certain level of stress or pressure to help us perform at our best. It is also commonly understood that when that stress and pressure reaches a certain level it starts to impact adversely on our mental and physical health, especially when sustained over period of time. This is illustrated in the ‘Pressure performance curve’ above. The answer to the question ‘How much stress is too much?’ is a very individual one, as different people can manage different levels of pressure for different periods of time. Some people find the absence of pressure, or boredom, very stressful. Some need only spend a few weeks in the ‘strain’ zone before tipping into the ‘crisis’ area, while others may manage for years. The key question is: ‘Do you know where you are on the curve?’ In reality we will fluctuate along this curve on a day-to-day basis, so ask yourself: ‘Where am I spending the majority of my time?’

Symptoms of stress

The symptoms listed below can be indicators of other disorders apart from stress, so it is always important to seek advice from your GP if you experience any of them.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • headaches
  • bowel disorders
  • muscular strain, pain and tensions – feeling ‘knotted up’ or grinding your teeth
  • disrupted sleep
  • absence of sleep.

Psychological symptoms can include:

  • feeling ‘out of control’ or ‘unable to cope’
  • loss of self-esteem or confidence
  • mood swings, feeling grumpy
  • emotional reactions, e.g. being weepy or aggressive.

In order to manage stress, we need to know the sources of the stress. These can be typically described as ‘environmental’ and ‘internal’ factors.


If you or any of your colleagues are suffering from stress at work, it can be helpful to step back and take an objective look at the working environment in your setting.

Does the physical working environment lend itself to well-being and productivity? What are the levels of temperature, ventilation, light, noise and interruptions? I have worked in a newly refurbished school where none of the windows opened (by design) and the only means of cooling was a poorly maintained air circulation system. During the summer months, stress levels rose alongside the temperatures, which could reach 35º C!

Are the expectations within job roles reasonable? This is about ‘job design’ – employers have a responsibility to ensure a good match between the demands of the role and the skills, knowledge and capability of the job holder. Where there isn’t a good match, this can be a source of stress and ill-health. Some roles are just impossible for anyone to perform because of the sheer complexity of the responsibilities built into the job description, and certainly the role of SBM can be complex.

How would you describe working relationships and relationships with key stakeholders in your school? Stress is more likely to be prevalent in a school with a blame culture and/or a bullying management approach. Watch out for these behaviours, as they can quickly turn a pleasant school into a toxic workplace.

Are staff expected always to be online, for example to reply to emails and social media posts at all hours of the day? At my previous school, we developed and adopted an email protocol which set out expectations in this regard, which encouraged staff to have an appropriate work–life balance.


Have you noticed that some people seem to deal with pressure better than others? The way we process and deal with environmental factors mentally and emotionally will determine their impact on our well-being.

It is helpful to consider your thinking patterns, so you can recognise when your thinking becomes unhelpful and stressful. For example, do you ‘catastrophise’? This refers to a tendency to look at small setbacks and imagine a crisis at the end of each one, regardless of how realistic this ‘crisis’ is. For example, imagine you arrive at school to start your working day and find a note on your desk from your headteacher which reads, ‘Come to my office as soon as you read this note.’ What thoughts immediately flood your mind? If you have a tendency to catastrophise, you will think, ‘What have I done wrong/forgotten? Am I about to be fired? If I lose my job I’ll lose the house.’ By the time you reach the headteacher’s office your adrenalin levels will be spiking! In reality, we can recognise that the note on your desk could be regarding any number of things, and that catastrophising is an unhelpful and unhealthy stress response.

Alternatively, you may be a perfectionist. If so, you probably won’t see this as a problem, but for certain personality types this can be an issue. For example, Type A and Type B personalities will approach work in quite different ways. You can use the Form – Identifying Type A and Type B personalities in the Toolkit to find out what type you are. If you are a Type A personality, you may find that anything less than perfect is just not good enough. You are task driven and can tend to obsession, which means you hit many personal goals, but when things fall short of your standards, you will push yourself even harder. You will also struggle to forgive yourself when you are less than perfect. This may mean that you have a lot of success in your professional life, but are achieving this at significant cost to your mental health and stress levels.

Perhaps you are not a perfectionist, but you struggle to say ‘no’ when people ask you to do things. Some SBMs take on too much because they feel, ‘The buck stops here’, but be wary of taking on more than you can manage. There is such a thing as a ‘false sense of responsibility’.

Stress management tools

SBMs should lead by example. Know your own stress levels and take action if you are not in a good place. Use the Form – Wheel of life in the Toolkit to help you decide where to start (see also ‘Further information’ below).

As employers, schools have a statutory duty to protect employees from stress at work and to assess risks to health in the workplace. There are lots of useful tools to help with this on the HSE website, including conducting a workplace stress audit, writing a stress management policy, creating working parties, and mental health first aid.

Many workplaces are benefiting from the practice of mindfulness. There are lots of apps to support this, including ‘Headspace’ and ‘Calm’. Also see the ‘Handout – Mindfulness through visualisation’ exercise in the Toolkit.

Further information


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Andrew Blench is an independent school business leader and coach, with over 30 years’ experience of operational management gained in the civil service, financial services, NHS and education. Formerly SBM of Dinnington High School, Rotherham, he has since created his own company, ‘School Business Partner’. He now supports different schools across Yorkshire and the East Midlands on an interim, project or consultancy basis. Find out more at


Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 14:57

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