Under pressure

Putting pedal to the metal of her Suzuki Bandit motorcycle does it for early childhood head teacher Meg Moss. “When you’re riding a motorbike, you have to give it a…

Meg On Bike - stress story

Early childhood teacher Meg Moss likes to get away from things on her motorbike.

Putting pedal to the metal of her Suzuki Bandit motorcycle does it for early childhood head teacher Meg Moss. “When you’re riding a motorbike, you have to give it a hundred percent concentration. Cornering, watching out for cars. It’s physically challenging as well as enjoyable.”

A few weeks ago, Moss gave up one of her Saturdays to run a rural education seminar in Kaitaia but made it more fun and took the stress out of the trip by riding there from Auckland on her bike. “I wouldn’t have done it if I was driving.”

Before bikes, Moss kept bees. “When you’re working with a beehive, you can’t think about anything else.” For a hobby to work as a stress release, she says, it has to be all consuming. “Find something outside of work that’s really interesting and relaxing, something that’s really different.”

Good advice. And in a recent survey of 250 NZEI members, nearly 85 percent said they used hobbies and interests including music and other arts to reduce stress. Only one method was more popular, and that was spending time with friends and family.

Heart stopping

Yet at least one member surveyed said they had little time left over for socialising once they’d met the commitments of the job. “The job is NOT 9 to 3, it is 7.30 to 6.30, plus 8 to 11 at night and at least one day per weekend.” As for raising the issue of overtime with management, the same member said she was the management.

But some have learnt that protecting precious time with family and friends is essential to lowering stress.

South Island primary school teacher Sally Smith* last year developed a heart condition from work-related stress. She ran up against a dictatorial boss who made her life a “living hell” in and out of the classroom. Colleagues left by the handful, but thanks to a hefty mortgage, she had no choice but to stick it out. “I had to think,’What do I need to do to get through this?'”

For Smith the solution was private counselling; an option used to reduce stress by around 7 percent of those surveyed. Although counselling couldn’t remove her boss, Smith learned to react to her in a different way. “Every time this woman yelled or screamed or overreacted, I learned to see this woman with compassion.”

Feeling sorry for her boss made Smith feel empowered. “It must be really hard work to have that much anger and bitterness inside you and to always be behaving in that manner. It can’t make you feel good.”
And now when they have a major dispute, Smith delegates her stress to the union. “I’m not strong enough to question her on my own, so I get the union to fight my battles when I need them to.”

But she also had to make a tough choice to give less of herself to the school.  “I had to become less engaged with the job I love. I had to learn that work is not my life. Family is my biggest focus, not the job. Now I put my energy into what’s important” and it’s not school, it’s life outside of it. It’s sad but I’m happier for it.”

Hanging on

Nearly eighty percent of members said they made it through the school year by hanging out for the holidays and just over half said they reduced stress by getting away for the weekend. Though again, at least one teacher said they found it impossible to believe that “just going away” was even an option.

Some blamed the sheer volume of work required, or the extra planning involved in implementing National Standards. One member said their workload was so intolerable that they simply didn’t have time to counteract the stress that came with it.

Quick fix

In such cases, members admitted they often turned to a quick fix. About a third of those surveyed said they’d used alcohol to reduce stress, and worryingly, nearly ten percent said they relied on prescription medication.

But happily, drinkers were in the minority. More than twice as many (nearly four out of five surveyed) said they turned to sport and exercise for stress reduction.

Relieving teacher Adrian Black is competing at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Relieving teacher Adrian Black is competing at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

North Canterbury relieving teacher Adrian Black, who is set to compete as a smallbore target shooter in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, says there’s nothing like hard-out training to take your mind off the job.

“Getting down and shooting something is a great way to relieve stress. You’re trying to get your mind focussed on something totally different, thinking about a number of processes that go into each shot.”


Moss encourages colleagues at her Early Learning Centre to take an interest in each other’s hobbies “or “relaxers” as she calls them “and tries to accommodate time off for staff to do what they need to do.

Among the current team are an avid patchwork quilter and a martial arts enthusiast. “She uses how she thinks about martial arts to teach the kids physical skills like how to fall safely. Her interest makes her a better teacher.”

But Moss emphasises that the best cure for stress is prevention. “It’s more important to identify and avoid stress than to deal with it when you’ve got it.” Her advice to new colleagues is to identify when they’re feeling stressed and work out exactly what’s causing it. Then try and deal with it. “Communicate openly with yourself and your colleagues about what’s bothering you and see if anything can be done to alleviate it.”

For Moss, the biggest stress reducers are decent child teacher ratios and adequate non-contact time. But she also looks to outside factors. In her previous job, she identified that too much work-associated driving was causing her stress. “So I decided to have work and home as close as I could. Now I walk to work” it’s a major stress avoider.”

Key points

  • 86 percent of teachers experience stress at work
  • 24 percent of say stress levels are “of concern” or “intolerable”

How teachers deal with stress

We asked 240 educators how they had dealt with stress in the last year. Most had more than one way of coping.

  • Exercise and sport – 78.6%
  • Hobbies and interests, including music and other arts – 83.6%
  • Yoga, tai chi or similar practices – 13%
  • Spending time with friends or family – 95.4%
  • Religion or other spiritual expression – 26.5%
  • Alcohol – 34.5%
  • Prescription medication – 9.7%
  • Alternative medicine – 16%
  • Peer counseling – 23.9%
  • Professional counseling – 7.1%
  • Hanging on until the holidays – 78.6%
  • Raising the issue with school management – 53.4%
  • Going away for the weekend – 55%
  • Contacting NZEI – 17.2%

*not her real name.