Breathe deep and shut your eyes

January 7, 2005

If the stress of marking and red tape is getting too much, take a break, think logically and remember that no one is holding a gun to your head, says Harriet Swain

Aaagh, it's a new term. Rainforests of student assignments to mark.

Libraries of books to read. The research assessment exercise. Funding applications. Deadlines. Aaagh.

Take a deep breath. Can you find a moment for some meditation? According to Gail Kinman, a senior lecturer in psychology at Luton University who is studying work-life balance among academic staff, meditation is one of the most effective techniques for coping with short-term stress problems. Alternatively, she says, you could try visualisation - "take yourself off to a private inner place that you are comfortable with".

Better still, suggests Stephen Palmer, honorary professor of psychology at City University and founding director of the Centre for Stress Management, you could try a more practical form of visualisation. "If there is something you don't want to do, such as giving a presentation, imagine seeing yourself dealing with the situation. See what might go wrong and how you might face it. See yourself coping with adversity."

Ray White, chair of the International Stress Management Association UK, suggests trying to think logically about the problem you are facing. "Our initial gut reaction is often wrong and stressful," he says. "Once the situation is looked at logically, many problems fall into perspective."

Concentrating on the present is much more productive than focusing either on past mistakes or potential future problems, he says.

Feeling any better? Now that you've tackled an immediate stressful situation, how are you going to take longer term steps to avoid stress in future?

First, take a look at your working environment. If it is too noisy or crowded, if you are being set impossible deadlines or feel your work is undervalued, you must speak up.

Michelle Tytherleigh, a research fellow at Plymouth University, who recently carried out a survey into stress in higher education institutions, says she found the most common causes of stress were people feeling a lack of control over their working lives and a lack of commitment from employers. While institutions have to act to combat these problems, she says academics must take some responsibility themselves. "If someone goes for a job that they know they aren't qualified for, or aren't strong enough to do, they need to be upfront about it," she says. "At the end of the day, an employer will say: 'It was in the job description.' You have to say from the beginning: 'I could do this job but I'm going to need some support.'"

One problem for academics, because of the autonomy they have in their working lives, is agreeing clear boundaries, says Liz Allen, national official at lecturers' union Natfhe's universities department. E-learning has made this a particular issue, with students sometimes expecting tutors to be on tap 24 hours a day. But in setting boundaries with students, you need to ensure that you have the support of management and colleagues.

You also need to know about what to do if things go wrong, she says. She stresses the importance of early intervention - finding out quickly what resources are available to you if you feel you are being caused unnecessary stress, and being aware of how university procedures work in stressful situations, such as when a student makes a complaint.

You will also probably have to be proactive in asking about the availability of stress-management courses and about encouraging your university to bring in a stress specialist to advise on improving work environments. You may have to remind your institution that, under new health and safety guidelines, it is obliged to conduct regular stress audits and act on the findings.

Palmer makes a distinction between external stresses, such as teaching and research deadlines, and the pressure many academics put themselves under.

You have to combat these internal pressures by challenging the thinking behind them, he says. "It's not the end of the world if you don't meet your deadlines. No one has a gun to your head - that is seldom the situation in higher education. If you fail to achieve your deadline, it is too bad, but it doesn't make you a failure."

Another common reason for stress is failure to accept reality, he says. It is no good fretting that an organisation ought to change when it is clearly not going to. "If a situation can change, then do something, but when this is not possible accept it and get out."

Instead, take practical measures, such as regular exercise, working realistic hours, taking a lunch break and having at least one full day a week away from work, White says. "Nobody can sustain a working life where they exceed ten hours a day," he says.

Still feeling that you can't cope? Don't turn to drugs or alcohol, which make things worse, says White, and don't be afraid to ask for help. "Foster the mindset that it isn't a weakness to seek help if you are not coping," he says. "It takes strength to admit it and do something about it."

"Academics tend to be very involved in their work, so it is difficult to say to them that they need to spend time away from it," Kinman says. "What is stressing them out is giving them satisfaction at the same time." For this reason, she says, many academics realise they have reached their limit only when they have exceeded it. She suggests that anyone who is struggling should try to keep a stress diary, to help them not only cope with pressure but also to help identify patterns to it.

Finally, for those who need outside intervention, she praises the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy for challenging faulty thinking patterns, such as believing your whole life is useless.

By the way, you can breathe out now.

More information

Online toolkits for tackling stress:

International Stress Management Association UK, registered charity promoting knowledge and best practice in combating stress:


  • Find methods of dealing with the immediate symptoms of stress that work for you
  • Set clear boundaries with students, managers and colleagues
  • Don't set yourself impossible deadlines and remember that it's not the end of the world if you miss one
  • Take regular time away from the university
  • Ask for help if you need it

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