The dark days of winter...

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Stress and mental health difficulties can be harder to handle during the dark winter nights. How can we support our staff?

Autumn is a tough term – I think we can all agree. The nights are drawing in, the weather is colder and wetter, and the demands on teachers tend to be heavier, especially with Christmas looming.

It is also likely that some of your staff may be suffering from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It means that with the loss of light and the darker days some people feel particularly low. SAD affects a small proportion of the population – about four to six per cent. But a further 10 to 20 per cent may have mild SAD or winter depression, as it is also known.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the symptoms can be lethargy, insomnia, over-eating, depression, feeling sad, low and weepy, having a sense of despair or anxiety and irritability.

At the Education Support Partnership, we have just published our annual Teacher Wellbeing Index and this shows that problems with mental health remain a growing concern. More than a third of education staff feel stressed most or all of the time at work, compared to 18 per cent of the UK workforce overall. And 57 per cent have considered leaving the profession within the past two years because of health pressures.

All this combined means that teachers may be struggling more than usual right now. However, there are ways to help your staff cope.

Simply recognising that many people might be feeling down is important. The stress of Christmas cannot be over-emphasised for those with families, especially female staff (despite our supposedly more equal times, it is still female members of staff who may well be bearing the brunt of Christmas preparations at home as well as in their classrooms). Could you offer time off for preparation or facilitate online shopping time at lunchtime – a little gesture that could make a big difference? Knowledge is also important. Do you staff know about SAD and how it might affect them? You could be doing them a great service simply by letting them know about SAD.

Knowledge can be very powerful.

Not all people experiencing mental health problems choose to disclose at work either, so a blanket statement of some kind to staff about the symptoms of SAD and asking them to take extra care – and showing them that you too are also taking care – is a good strategy.

Making the most of the light that is available might also help. Small changes – like going outdoors around midday or on bright days and having pale colours in class and staffrooms to reflect light can help. Exercise helps reduce the symptoms too, as does a healthy diet of fresh vegetables and fruit. Why not put a bowl of fruit in the staffroom and/or freshly cut flowers? The colours and smells of warmer weather can do much to cheer people up in these dark days.

And encourage your staff to plan ahead to reduce the number of stressful or difficult activities that they schedule during the Christmas period.

You can also encourage all staff to be aware of the services we offer. Our 24-hour free helpline is available to all education staff who may be feeling the pressure.

Sometimes talking to a sympathetic stranger is enough to help someone feel better able to cope. Our counsellors are very experienced at dealing with all kinds of issues that education staff may be facing right now and they work with callers to come up with a strategy for coping.

And remember, the dark days don’t last. Once the shortest day has passed deep in December, we gain two minutes of sunlight every day!

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Education Support Partnership. Contact the charity’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561. For details, visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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