Research over the past three decades has shown that workers who report high job demands, but low control, report the most symptoms of stress, and suffer the highest rate of heart disease and high blood pressure. More recent research has also shown that when a job is demanding but has low rewards—including job insecurity, lack of promotion prospects, low salary and lack of esteem—heart disease risk is increased.
While researchers chose to study heart disease as an outcome, stress affects virtually every system of the body, as well as mood, behavior and mental health.
With cuts to state and local funding for public education, leading to layoffs and privatization, compounded by the imposition of education “reforms” perpetrated by those with little or background in education, teachers, educational support professionals, and administrators are under much more stress than usual.
High stakes tests
An array of stresses arise from the national trend toward high stakes testing and the blaming of teachers for poor student performance. In addition to the paperwork directly related to teaching, educators find that they must complete overly precise lesson plans and complete other paperwork to document that they are following the curriculum.
Such tasks, which appear to have little connection to student achievement, frustrate teachers. New evaluation systems and an increase in unannounced walk-though observations in some districts adds to the stress. High-stakes tests force many teachers to narrow down what they teach to only what is tested, casting aside the rich subject matter that may have attracted them to the profession in the first place.
At the same time, if tests are used under federal rules to label a school as “failing,” the school may lose funding and layoffs could result. Fear of funding loss discourages teachers and educational support professionals (ESP) from filing complaints about serious problems, and makes administrators afraid to report violence and vandalism, factors used to indicate a “failing” school.
Because there have been so many layoffs, class sizes have increased and teachers and other staff are forced to do parts of certain specialized jobs that have been eliminated. In addition, school employees are paying more for health benefits and making higher pension contributions. To make matters worse, the number of local associations that have been without a contract for long periods of time is on the rise, creating stressful situations.
ESP, who often experience even less control over their work environment than teachers—and face more acutely privatization threats, layoffs, and the challenges of lower incomes—are not immune to the increased stress placed upon those who work in a school today.
It is not hard to see how these stresses fall into the categories of high job demands, low decision latitude, and low rewards for hard work—the principle stressors linked to heart disease and other negative health outcomes.
Local associations can help
Employers typically treat stress as a personal reaction, addressing an individual’s symptoms with health promotion and employee assistance programs while ignoring the stressors that are affecting nearly everyone. The best long-term approach to stress is to organize to eliminate some of the causes of stress.
In these times of threats of school closings and layoffs, it is challenging to find collective solutions to job stress. By the same token, it is more important than ever for local associations to do what is possible. The very act of organizing members around the issue of stress begins to reduce some of the isolation and demoralization that come with deteriorating working conditions.
Staff should form a health and safety committee and work with the regional UniServ field representative to address workplace stress. The committee may:
- Meet and identify stressors.
- Strategize worker involvement in workplace decisions where possible.
- Identify conditions that may be addressed through the grievance process if not otherwise resolved.
- Develop a public awareness campaign about the problems schools face, the efforts staff are making to overcome them, and build support for those efforts.
- Educate and support staff in individual efforts that can alleviate some effects of stress such as support networks and information on nutrition, rest, exercise, relaxation techniques and other stress reduction measures
- Promote AID-NJEA, a helpline staffed by active and retired school personnel.
For more information
For individual free, confidential assistance with stress at work or at home, members can call AID-NJEA at 866-AID-NJEA (6532).
Websites and online resources:
- The Communication Workers of America (CWA) pamphlet on stress and union solutions, at www.cwa-union.org/pages/Occupational_Stress_and_the_Workplace.
- A comprehensive guide to managing individual stress, including “alternative” approaches, such as meditation, tai chi and yoga, from the National Institutes of Health, at www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html.