Don't crumble or quit, call us

January 21, 2005

With workplace stress in the spotlight, a counsellor advises lecturers to seek help.

After ten years in academe, the caller told me she was considering quitting.

The lecturer had a mountain of forms to complete, papers to mark, a sick mother and was a single parent.

The emotional, mental and physical pressures of working full time, running a home and making regular trips to the hospital were causing her so much stress that leaving her job to concentrate on her family seemed her only option, which was why she was talking to me in my role as a counsellor for the Teacher Support Line for Lecturers.

The caller was desperate. But during a 50-minute counselling session over the phone, we managed to establish some basic strategies to help her cope with the demands on her time, including making some space for her own needs.

We also arranged a series of further counselling calls to provide support while her mother was sick.

By the end of her sessions, problems still existed, but the lecturer was in a better position to deal with them.

Her case provides an excellent example of the day-to-day work of the support line. In fact we offer a 24-hour seven-days-a-week service, every day of the year.

I have been a counsellor for six years since the launch of the service for teachers, some 70,000 of whom have called us since 1999.

The lecturers' line was launched last May as part of an extension of lecturer's union Natfhe's member services. Teachers and academics appear to face similar workplace problems - stress, workload and retirement issues.

Having worked in the education sector before I trained as a counsellor, I understand the specific problems callers face when they talk about feeling "snowed under" by "having yet another goal to meet" and "endless amounts of paperwork".

Like the teachers who have called the support line, the lecturers I have spoken to often prefer to cope with demanding workload issues by themselves.

Some of them see it as a sign of weakness to acknowledge problems with stress.

But my experience suggests that talking issues through with a counsellor can help callers deal with the underlying reasons for problems such as bullying management, unreasonable deadlines and the inability to say no to extra work.

Lecturers can also review how they deal with periods of pressure and establish ways of dealing with stressful situations long term.

Callers often prefer the anonymity of a phone call to discuss personal and professional issues rather than approaching colleagues or family. Many find our details on Natfhe's website or from posters on common room walls.

At the end of her counselling sessions, my caller expressed her gratitude:

"Just talking about everything I was going through gave me the strength to work with the counsellor to think of ways to improve my situation, including having time boundaries between my job and home, talking to my union and finding space for myself.

"It made me realise that just because I was finding things hard it didn't make me a bad parent and lecturer."

The lecturers who call us feel they have been heard and understood. They gain new perspectives, get to explore their options and, most important, their self-worth is re-established.

Anonymous counsellor with the Teacher Support Line for Lecturers, which offers counselling for lecturers. Academics in England can call 0800 0562 561, in Wales 0800 085 5088.

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