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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Hewett

Strategies for Reducing Unnecessary Stress





Did you know that April is Stress Awareness Month in the UK. Organised by The Stress Management Society, this year's theme is #LittleByLittle, aiming to highlight the cumulative benefits of consistent, small actions.

As an individual and a teacher living with generalised anxiety and depression, I have developed a range of strategies to help me manage day-to-day stress. Strategies such as breaking my time down into fixed and flexible segments, prioritising tasks using the Eisenhower Matrix, and knowing when I work best have been highly beneficial.


Personally, my stress levels are maintained at a 'normal' level when I feel organised, when my workload is manageable, when I have time to pause during the school day, when I have somewhere quiet and safe to retreat to, when I feel valued and appreciated, and when I have a sense of purpose and impact. Even though I have a toolkit of strategies that I have tried, refined, and continue to implement to support myself and my colleagues, there are triggers that are beyond my control.


Therefore, I thought I would share a few recommendations for schools to reduce unnecessary stress for staff and to support colleagues with neurodivergent minds. Some of these may sound like essential basics that workplaces should be implementing, but it is not always the case.


Centralised Calendar

How often have you had to search for event dates, reports, or similar information across various documents? A centralised calendar system can be incredibly useful tool when used effectively.


Firstly, the calendar should encompass everything—from term dates and events to meetings, formal assessments, reports, and parent evenings. Consolidating all requirements into a single document, enables staff to manage their time directed time with confidence. Next, the calendar should be accessible from a centralised location. My preference would be to have it available as a printable read-only document, along with integration into a digital calendar system (such as Outlook Calendar).


Additionally, the calendar should undergo a consultation process with staff during the spring or summer term. This allows staff members to identify pinch-points and propose solutions. In my experience, input from those dealing with the day-to-day realities of full-time teaching is often overlooked. School leaders with lighter teaching timetables may not always recognise these pinch-points, resulting in deadlines changes at a later date. Lastly, I recommend minimising changes to the calendar throughout the year to avoid surprises. In my experience, ad-hoc events and unexpected requests often trigger an anxious response whilst also resulting in unnecessary stress amongst colleagues.


Assigned Meeting Times

Have you ever been asked to meet during a PPA, at lunch or outside of directed time? Most of us will have experienced it, despite statutory guidance and union advice.


When creating the directed-time calendar, school leaders should strive to ensure that teams receive dedicated time for meetings and collaboration. Whether it’s on a weekly, fortnightly, or termly basis, providing staff with formal opportunities to meet—whether as a department, team, or one-on-one—allows them to manage their time effectively without the fear of surprise meeting requests.


Moreover, it is vital that staff be able to pause at break and lunch without fear of disruption. At times, I have found it difficult to function after having taught for two hours, followed immediately by a meeting and then straight back into another lesson.


Formal meeting times should also apply to teacher-student meetings. In my last role, I found myself frequently meeting sixth-form students at lunchtime. To avoid the ad-hoc nature of requests, I put up a ‘Meet with Mrs Harrison’ sheet. It listed the times I had available, and students simply wrote their name in the relevant box. I would check each evening if I had meetings the next day and I could plan accordingly.


Finally, avoid the ‘could we have a quick chat’ kind of meeting. Every worst-case scenario goes through my head when these words are uttered. Within a few seconds, my mind is telling me I’ve made an unforgivable yet unidentifiable mistake that means I am about to be fired. To ease potential stress, remember to provide a purpose for the meeting and communicate the degree of importance.


Agendas in Advance

Continuing with the meeting theme, have you ever turned up to a meeting with no idea of its purpose? What about being asked to contribute your thoughts to something that has only just been brought up?

When I attend a meeting without an agenda, my mind does one of two things: it either panics, and everything said in the meeting turns into yet another thing for my to-do list, or it becomes hyper-focused, and I furiously take notes to ensure I don't miss any important details. Neither are conducive to maintaining normal stress levels.


To alleviate this stress, I recommend a simple yet powerful practice, provide agendas in advance!

For meetings where the primary purpose is to disseminate information, such as updates, announcements, or policy changes, share the agenda at least 24 hours beforehand, allowing attendees to prepare mentally and absorb the content without surprises. When attendees are expected to contribute actively, through discussions, brainstorming, or decision-making, the agenda should be shared even earlier—preferably at least 72 hours in advance. Additionally, include a brief overview of any tasks or actions required before, during, or after the meeting.


Time for Tasks

Following on, when assigning tasks especially new ones, it is crucial that the time required for completion is considered.


Frequently tasks originate from those who may not directly undertake them, leading to oversight of the time commitment required where this time will come from, especially within the confines of a full timetable.


Whether you’re a classroom teacher, head of department or school leader, when providing staff with a task, consider the following:

a) Time Frame: Clearly communicate how long you expect staff to spend on the task. Providing templates or model can streamline the process.

b) Deadline: Set realistic deadlines. Consult the school calendar and consider other commitments. Ensure staff have sufficient time to complete the task without undue pressure.

c) Importance and Impact: Reflect on who benefits from the task and its overall impact. Is it as crucial as it seems?


Obviously, some tasks like safeguarding concerns require immediate action but others can be planned strategically. Ideally provide 10 working days between request and deadline for non-urgent tasks. From experience, schools with a clear and accessible improvement plan tend to handle task requests effectively, benefiting both staff and students.


Deliberate Distribution of Responsibilities

We all encounter those intense periods in the academic year—whether it’s handling written reports, assessment weeks, or other demanding tasks. There are frequently moments when our workload suddenly ramps up, creating pinch points throughout the year.


However, there are also weeks when multiple responsibilities converge and prioritising your work can be overwhelming. For instance, you need to mark mock exams, moderate them, attend a Year 9 parents’ evening, and participate in an after-school meeting—all within the same week. It’s natural to wonder, “Who thought this was a good idea?”


In most instances, this situation results from a need for improved strategic planning and the development of a cohesive, centralized school calendar. It may be the case that currently different individuals hold various responsibilities, which leads to fragmented decision-making and coordination.


To limit pinch points, I recommend deliberately distributing essential events and responsibilities, such as parents' evenings, reports, assessment, data entry, and similar tasks, across the academic year. Additionally, assigning each event a clear strategic purpose can help make each one meaningful.

For example, parent’s evenings could be given a definitive purpose to focus discussions:

Year 7 (November): Meet the teachers and assess how well students have settled in.

Year 8 (March): Conduct progress reviews.

Year 9 (January): Discuss options and pathways.

Year 10 (June): Review progress and predictions.

Year 11 (February): Focus on final preparations for exams.

When considering the distribution across the academic year, it is also helpful to distinguish by year group and whole school, as illustrated in the example below. This approach allows staff to see the full picture rather than trying to determine relevance to them.




Safe Space

My final recommendation is the creation of a safe space for staff members. This designated area should serve as a retreat where staff can work or rest without disruptions from colleagues or students. It's a space where they can feel at ease, find solace, and recharge their energy.

 

During the pandemic, when students were given designated areas, it resulted in unused spaces available for staff to utilise. When things returned to normal, I came to realise the importance of having such a space to alleviate the anxiety that builds up throughout the day and to replenish my depleted energy reserves.

 

Furthermore, in my recent transition to a new school, I've observed the value of having distinct spaces for staff use. While the staffroom offers a sociable environment for both work and relaxation, there's also a dedicated area for quiet work. This arrangement provides flexibility based on individual needs, including energy levels, stress levels, and anxiety, which I have found incredibly beneficial.


To Conclude

Teaching is undoubtedly demanding, exhausting, and at times overwhelming. It is therefore crucial to recognise that creating an environment where everyone—staff, students, and the wider community—can thrive is not just a luxury but a necessity. While schools often prioritise support for students' individual needs, it's equally essential to extend that support to staff. I hope this serves as a reminder that reducing stress in schools isn't just about implementing quick fixes; it's about fostering a culture of inclusivity and support through strategic planning and implementation.

Thanks for reading and please, do share your thoughts.




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