April 2011 Issue
March 18, 2011

How to tackle workplace stress

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

Margaret Sergent and her union-trained peers are teaching educators how to swap stress for strength.

"Stress is not all in your head," says Sergent, second vice president of the Rochester Teachers Association and master trainer with the AFT's health and safety division.

For educators, stress is also in the throat (voice disorders from talking all day, and working in rooms with poor indoor air quality); back (pain from lifting students in wheelchairs); nose (sinus infections and allergies from poor indoor air quality in schools); knees (from standing all day); jaw (TMJ from overuse of jaw, grinding at night); and bladder (disorders not unusual for teachers who can't always get bathroom breaks).

And those headaches? Lately, they come from constant attacks on the teaching profession, job loss, threats to job security, and lack of financial or moral support for educators.

These conditions, and many others, are reported to Sergent and other master trainers during workshops provided to locals that want to help members struggling with stress-related problems. Together with fellow master trainer Winsome Browne-Cooke of the Hempstead TA, Sergent recently worked with teachers, custodians, teaching assistants, aides, and school nurses attending the NYSUT Health and Safety Conference.

Many of the members in the stress workshop were newcomers to a NYSUT health and safety conference — NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue said 100 first-timers attended the training.

"You are a major voice in preventing violence, keeping workplaces safe, and improving working conditions," Donahue said.

Educators are uncertain about the implementation and ramifications of Race To The Top and the new teacher evaluation system. Budget cutbacks and loss of colleagues also create worry.

"A lot of our members are bringing concerns," said Laura Barber, president of the Stillwater TA. Katie McBride, a Stillwater teacher and vice president of the TA added: "The constant negative press that puts teachers in a bad light produces workplace stress. We want to help our members."

Enter Sergent, who comes with open arms, answers and stickers.

Sergent gave participants neon green "STRESS" stickers to paste on parts of their body that hurt. Achy parts were then mapped out on a poster. To prevent stress pain from becoming a chronic illness, the two trainers presented solutions.

Using a chart called "Solidarity Solutions for Workplace Stress," members strategized how to improve problems in the workplace.

  • Who are our allies? 
  • What are our resources?
  • List materials and people that can help us with our plan. 
  • Consider the barriers: what can we do about them? 
  • List short term and long term goals. 
  • What would we like the union to do?

"You're not alone," said Sergent, who is also a member of NYSUT's Health and Safety task force. "We've dealt with this as a union. Contract language is powerful to get these things dealt with."

The Stress Intervention Triangle that Sergent and Cook-Brown presented starts with Level One: Prevent the Stress. Level Two: Reduce the Stress, and Level Three: the Individual Response to the Stress.

A Level One solution, Sergent said, can include having the local union form a health and safety committee and meet regularly to deal with workplace problems. That can mean meeting with a union building steward, photographing problems such as leaks or mold, or meeting with the state's Public Employees Safety and Health bureau.

Other Level One responses: Start an exercise class for union members; create a Wellness Committee; or sometimes learning when to say "no."

Individually, members are responsible for making sure they get enough sleep, exercise, have social support, use relief such as meditation and deep breathing, find ways to bring joy into their lives, and contact their Employee Assistance Program to get confidential assistance for difficult or ongoing issues.