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Supportive or responsible? Empathy or anxiety? How to support students without damaging our health

Rather randomly the other week, I happened to attend a research seminar on the effects of stress and 'burnout' in the workplace.  It was very interesting, and rather shocking to discover just what a problem it is.  However, I am grateful for the experience in another way: If I hadn't been, I might not have noticed how close I was to making myself rather unwell.

I am sure most, if not all of us know what it is like to feel stressed and over-worked (working on the assumption that this blog is least likely to ever be read by a Tory MP or Michael Wilshaw).  Certainly I have felt this before, and in a sense it is generally quite easy to deal with.  Getting over-worked means you get tired and grumpy, and this becomes so manifest that you quickly realise that it is time to get some sleep - or at the very least sit quietly in a corner somewhere until the steam stops travelling horizontally from your ears and your eyes un-cross.

More sinister though, is the kind of stress which you do not even notice is there.

Once before I experienced the odd effects of stress and over-work when I really wasn't expecting it.  On that occasion (many years ago now) I had been working very long hours - but was actually rather enjoying it. I had got into a kind of rhythm, and each day was metronomically being ticked off in progression towards the completion of a rather large project.  Indeed, life felt good at the time and travelling to work often put a smile on my face.

Until one morning on the train, I realised I couldn't read.  Words on the page suddenly made no sense at all.  By the time I got to work, I was unable to speak in anything more than an incoherent slur - and my attempt to phone for help were aborted because I could not work the telephone.  Eventually help came, and a doctor called, and it transpired I had been over-doing it.  A few days strict rest, and a stern warning from the doctor about the health risks of over-doing it, and I was fine again - but it was a pretty unpleasant experience, not least because it was so unexpected.

This week, I have come close to repeating this experience.  In retrospect, the signs were there: I was getting more grumpy; was starting to get frustrated by workloads; was having trouble sleeping; had a headache hanging around unremittingly for a week or so that was getting increasingly intense.  Finally I realised my words were becoming slurred and I was starting to sound slightly drunk (not in a good way).

'Aha!'  I eventually thought to myself.  'This seems familiar - and not unlike the characteristics of 'burnout' I had been hearing about the other week!'  Actually, a closer interpretation of what I thought would be 'Aarg! Fammbrrrnt lsswuk'.

Normally at this time of year, 'marking' would be the obvious cause of long hours and anxiety - but my marking does not really come in until next week.  So what have I been up to?

Well, I have been looking at student draft essays and dissertations.  Looking at them and worrying about them until the early morning hours, and then failing to sleep because I can't stop thinking about them and worrying about the ones in my email that I haven't had the time to look at.

There is a line between empathising with student anxieties, and taking those anxieties home with you.  There is a line between being supportive to students, and feeling responsible for them.  At some point I seemed to have crossed both lines without realising.

Working in a College where staff and students generally build up good relationships, and get to know each other well, it is perhaps possible that we walk a little closer to the line than in Universities with more students.  However, this problem is certainly not one which is exclusive to either myself or to my College.  I have seen it in friends who are primary-school teachers, secondary-school teachers and University lecturers, health workers, etc..

The question is, how to deal with it?  What strategies can we use to ensure that staff balance their role effectively?  What strategies can we use to monitor ourselves for signs of stress, anxiety or over-working, and identify signs early enough to head them off?  I don't have the answers to these questions - indeed I feel utterly ignorant about issues like this.  I am currently just trying to force myself close down my computer in the evenings, but the headaches have not gone yet so I am continuing more in hope than expectation that I am going about things in the right way.

I have mentioned this issue to my College as one which might benefit from some staff development, but the response was unenthusiastic. Surely though, this is a problem which people in education know about all too well?  Where, then, can we go to find solutions?

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