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How to manage mental health in the workplace: The experiences of teachers and retail workers.

The workplace can be one of the most challenging places to look after your mental health. So I thought I’d share common experiences that induce stress, and then provide some insight on how to manage your mental health. This post will focus on teachers and retail workers however, these experiences and coping mechanisms are not exclusive to these professions. You can apply any relevant coping mechanisms to your workplace.


And remember good mental health is a human right #UDHRarticle25.



Teachers:


A teacher's chance of suffering from depression or anxiety is higher than the national average (2). Prior to the pandemic 58% felt stressed in their work, this is 9% higher than the OECD average (1). The pandemic adds elements such as concern for safety due to students often breaking COVID rules, I can only imagine how elevated the levels of stress for teachers have been over 2020.


Teachers at highly disadvantaged schools are 11% more stressed than teachers in other OECD countries in a similar school circumstance (1). Furthering that statistic, teachers at public schools in Australia reported being highly stressed 8% more than private school teachers (1). Mental health should not be a classist issue, and yet there is a large disparity in stress levels directly relating to high and low-income school districts. It’s clear that the government needs to understand that the extraordinary people educating and shaping Australia’s future society must be allocated the resources to maintain good mental health. After all, how can we expect students to learn good mental health practices from teachers who aren’t coping with their own health?


One of the most troubling statistics about the profession is that teachers with a lot of stress in their first five years of teaching are likely to stop teaching after their fifth year. The number of teachers who leave the profession due to stress could be as high as 50% (4). This reflects a great demand for better mental health management in the Australian education system (1). Mental health strategies are increasingly made invaluable at schools, however, there is a long way to go with 17% of the teachers depending on alcohol as a coping mechanism (3).


Below I’ve listed the top stress-inducing elements for teachers, and ways to help make changes that better the mental health of teachers, in the short and long term.


Issues:

  1. Kids standing too close, concerns of exposure to COVID (4)

  2. Marking and administrative work cause more concern than lesson plans (1).

  3. Teachers grapple with growing workloads and difficult behaviour from students and parents (4)

  4. In NSW 89.05% found moderate to high-stress levels when completing tasks within a time limit (workload pressures) (5).

  5. In NSW 77.6% found moderate to high-stress levels trying to keep up with educational changes (demands of professionalism) (5).

  6. In NSW 67.4% found moderate to high-stress levels due to communication and management (5).

  7. In NSW 67.4% found moderate to high-stress thinking about their career prospects (5).


Preventive Measures:

  1. Reduced teaching load (6).

  2. Reduced class sizes (6).

  3. Schools and teachers can do the Be YOU modules for mental health building (4).

  4. Teachers need to be provided notice about changes to the usual schedule as soon as possible, so they have time to prepare (7).

  5. Get enough sleep (8).


In the moment measures:

  1. 84.3% of NSW found relief in support from staff members (6).

  2. Support from the principal (6).

  3. Get tasks done by splitting them into smaller sections (7).

  4. One of the causes of stress for teachers can be dealing with a student’s mental health. In this scenario, you can refer them to a counsellor or ask another member of staff who the student can talk to (7).


Post work measures:

  1. 61.9% of NSW teachers find taking approved leave helps their mental health (6).

  2. share the burden of stress with others by seeking the support of family/friends = 60.8 NSW (6).

  3. Importance in both cases was attached to engaging in physical activity or hobbies as a form of relaxation (6).

  4. Create a joy journal, where you write down positive things, this allows your mind to take a break from the stressors and shift your thinking (8).


 

Retail:


Many occupations offer stressful situations however, it’s suggested that out of every occupation sales support workers experience stress at one of the highest levels (12). Prior to the pandemic, 20% of retail workers were stressed due to financial pressure, with COVID bringing economic issues we can only imagine that number vastly increasing (9).


The pandemic has meant retail workers have become more than customer sales representatives, they now also act as safety marshals on what many are calling the front lines, as essential workers. The implementation of safety regulations has seen a 400% rise in aggression and abuse towards staff (10). 85% of staff are dealing with verbal and physical abuse when trying to prevent crime, with retail crime rising during the pandemic (10).



Retail is about customer service, and communicating with customers can be emotionally draining. This is especially true when the customers become increasingly problematic during COVID by ignoring safety regulations. The emotional labour required by retail workers can be incredibly demanding as they constantly have to mask or alter their true feelings to assist customers and please management. The issue that arises from the continual shutting down of true emotions at work, is that opportunity to maintain emotional well-being is limited. Demanding a continual shutdown of emotions in the name of getting on with work contributes to a depletion in good mental health. Management need to implement at the very least adequate mental health support services specific to their staff. Training is another huge area for improvement, so that retail staff know how to offer support to one another at work. Similar to the teaching profession, retail workers can feel emotionally supported at work when managers and colleagues can effectively listen and empathise with each other (14).


Below I’ve listed the top stress-inducing elements for retail workers, and ways to help make changes that better the mental health of retail workers, in the short and long term.


Issues:

  • Fear of exposure to COVID (9).

  • Increased workloads and longer hours (11).

  • Bad management.

  • Busy stores.

  • Understaffing.

  • Customers getting mad (10).


Preventative measures:

  1. Increase awareness about how to effectively manage finances, to help both businesses and employees (9).

  2. PPE needs to be increased and available to all appropriate staff (11).

  3. Work health and safety management needs to be improved (11).

  4. Informing and preparing staff in advance for changes in protocol (12).

  5. Training management and staff to support each other and communicate effectively (13).

  6. Continually remind staff of new measures, so they feel safe and ensure all members are following the new regulations (11).


In the moment measures:

  1. Calling other members of staff such as security during escalated incidents (11).

  2. Taking a moment to talk to colleagues (empathising and feeling validated in your concerns) (11).

  3. Understand you have limits on helping customers in your usual manner due to some of the WHS protocols and that’s okay. (11).


Post work measures:

  1. Taking approved leave (11).

  2. Check your entitlements to maintain your mental health without fear of discrimination (15).

  3. Talking to family and friends to feel supported (11).

  4. Look after your body through exercise and healthy eating (16).


 

No matter your occupation mental health needs to be made a priority not only by you but by your employer. This is backed up by research suggesting that high levels of stress need to be met with high levels of rewards. One of the main reasons teachers leave the profession is because the rewards simply don’t match the stress (17).


A good strategy for situations that induce stress, is to follow the Navy SEALs technique of breathing to help feel a sense of control, the 4 x 4 (18).


Step 1. Put your hands on your stomach to feel is expand and contract

Step 2. Breath in for 4 seconds

Step 3. Breath out for 4 seconds

Step 4. Continue the above steps for 2-3 minutes



 

Article by Jemima Barlow

President of the NDSJS 2020

Contact us: ndsocialjusticesociety@gmail.com

 

References:

  1. https://www.acer.org/au/discover/article/australian-teachers-report-high-stress-levels

  2. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/teachers-are-more-depressed-and-anxious-than-the-average-australian

  3. https://southpacificprivate.com.au/mental-health/teachers-are-more-depressed-and-anxious-than-the-average-australian/#:~:text=This%20year%2C%20a%20substantial%20number,one%2Dfifth%20are%20depressed1

  4. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/columnists/julia-gillard/the-mental-health-of-teachers

  5. https://www.ieu.asn.au/resources/workplace-health-safety/stress-burnout-among-teachers

  6. https://www.ieu.asn.au/resources/workplace-health-safety/stress-burnout-among-teachers

  7. https://beyou.edu.au/resources/news/coronavirus-schools-adapting-to-changes

  8. https://www.coolcatteacher.com/manage-teaching-stress/

  9. https://insideretail.com.au/news/twenty-per-cent-of-retail-workers-feel-financially-stressed-study-finds-201901

  10. https://insideretail.com.au/news/retailers-see-rise-in-workplace-safety-issues-202008

  11. https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/retail/mental-health

  12. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/teachers-are-more-depressed-and-anxious-than-the-average-australian

  13. https://hrlegal.com.au/7-ways-to-manage-mental-health-in-the-retail-industry/

  14. https://insideretail.com.au/news/managing-mental-health-in-your-workplace-201604

  15. https://headspace.org.au/young-people/managing-your-mental-health-and-disclosure-at-work/

  16. https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/how-to-look-after-your-mental-health-wellbeing

  17. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/teachers-are-more-depressed-and-anxious-than-the-average-australian

  18. https://www.wgu.edu/heyteach/article/9-stress-management-strategies-every-teacher-needs-know1612.html


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