With teaching often described as stressful, recognising the signs of stress and knowing how to broach the topic are the first steps to supporting colleagues
Do you know the signs of a stressed colleague? Do you know how to support someone who is stressed? As someone who manages anxiety and panic, exacerbated by stress, I am going to write this from personal experience: what has worked for me when I am stressed. I hope to offer some guidance to those who have not experienced, or are yet to experience, a mental health challenge. If it’s the first time that someone has experienced extreme stress, they might be unaware of their own symptoms.
Spotting the signs
My first panic attack felt like it came out of nowhere. Leading up to this, although I was my seemingly cheerful, productive, efficient self, there were signs. I now look out for these signs with colleagues that I work with:
A big change
Births, marriage, death, divorce and illness all cause stress, yet we carry on regardless – teaching, marking and planning – not giving ourselves space to recover, heal or grieve. There can be a lag between these events and their impact.
More absent or more present
Withdrawal from others is a common symptom of depression or anxiety, so I tend to avoid social events and big meetings, or just ‘hide’ at work. If there are pressures to avoid at home, a colleague may start working longer. So, if you see someone change behaviour, this could be a sign of stress or deteriorating mental health.
When overwhelmed, the flight response is common. Although they may not communicate it, your colleague may be feeling that they should leave. Signs include looking at jobs pages, talking of dissatisfaction with the job, or saying they aren’t good enough.
Overreacting to what seems a normal situation is a sign of stress. Bursting into tears, an angry outburst or being defeatist are all examples. Simple things like the photocopier jamming, being put on cover or spilling your coffee can trigger this. Also talking in an all-or-nothing way, such as, ‘If I don’t get my marking done, I’ll get sacked!’
What can you do?
Early intervention can be helpful. The longer someone is stressed, the greater the impact on their mental health. It can be uncomfortable, but these simple actions can help a person realise they are stressed and do something about it.
1. Ask twice. Often when we ask how people are, the response is ‘fine’. Someone stressed will be hiding their stress from themselves and others. Asking ‘Are you really ok?’, in a safe place at an appropriate time, will give them an opportunity to recognise you are willing to listen.
2. Listen: don’t solve. Many of us feel that we want to do practical things to solve a person’s stress. Just listening and accepting what they say is often the best thing you can do for someone who is stressed or mentally unwell. It may be the first time they have verbalised their stresses.
3. Suggest support, but protect yourself. Usually, you are not in a situation to take on someone else’s stress. Instead suggest sensible options. Ask, ‘Have you told anyone else?’ or ‘Have you considered seeing your GP?’ Or suggest talking to the school nurse/line manager/occupational health. There are also useful online questionnaires that assess your mental health. This was one of the first things that made me realise I wasn’t well.
Keep in mind, there is no rule book in life. Everyone is usually dealing with everything for the first time. Being stressed or having a mental health issue is not a sign of weakness. Dealing with it and coming through it is a sign of immense strength.