April 2015 Issue
March 25, 2015

A cupful of advice on dealing with workplace stress

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Educators at the NYSUT Health and Safety Conference brainstorm ways to relieve stress. From left: Colin Massulik, Maureen Flaherty, Kate O'Callaghan, Kristen Carney and Karen Stephens. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: Educators at the NYSUT Health and Safety Conference brainstorm ways to relieve stress. From left: Colin Massulik, Maureen Flaherty, Kate O'Callaghan, Kristen Carney and Karen Stephens. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Each year, residents of the Northeast witness the damage that can be caused by an ice jam, buckling and rutting as it floods and crashes, destroying anything in its path. Similar effects occur in the human body from a prolonged buildup of stress, which damages the very systems that protect and propel us.

Many educators, feeling besieged by Gov. Cuomo's anti-public education agenda and attacks on their profession, are internalizing the stress. The White Plains Teachers Association, which won an Unsung Hero Award for its work in building a health and safety committee, recently completed a districtwide survey that revealed the No. 1 health and safety concern on the job is workplace stress.

It is such a concern among educators that many of them crowded into a room at a recent NYSUT Health and Safety Conference to learn about the effects of workplace stress and how to combat it.

Stress can manifest itself in heart problems, irritability and depression, explained presenter Brian Bisson, vice president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate in Connecticut. Too much cortisol, the hormone released by stress, goes into fat cells and can settle in bellies and lead to obesity. Insomnia, grinding teeth, menstrual disorders, frequent colds, anxiety, paranoia, inability to focus and substance abuse are all byproducts of stress.

To illustrate the gradual but devastating effects of ongoing exposure to stress, Bisson had each workshop participant hold out a cup labeled "STRESS."

If you hold it for a few minutes, it's not a big deal, he explained. Holding it for hours can make your arms ache. Holding it all day can cause numbness and even paralysis.

While the weight of the cup doesn't change, "the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes," Bisson said. "Remember to put the cup down."

Fighting back

The growing stressors educators face include disappearing programs and fewer teachers and support staff; threats to local control of schools; overcrowded classrooms; punitive assessment proposals; and the rigorous, draining regimen of testing.

"My young staff has been made to feel that teaching isn't as important as making sure students score well on tests that might really be irrelevant to their educational success. My colleagues have more fatigue, less joy in teaching and feel that the energy they've brought to teaching is being sapped by the overriding importance of test scores," said Robin Phillips, Baldwin TA.

Educators across the state are fired up and fighting back, joining rallies and forums, and signing petitions at the NYSUT Member Action Center to have their voices heard. These are classic anti-stress moves to empower people. Locals can take advantage of NYSUT support with workplace training, health and safety on the job, and contract enforcement, among other assistance available. Members also have access to the union's free, confidential Social Services program for information about counseling, coping with stress and much more.

For many, combating stress starts with education. Jeanette Stapley, Schroon Lake TA retiree and NYSUT Board member, shares information about available programs with locals in her region.

"We know we are stressed but often forget how damaging the effect is," Stapley said. "Reminding members is beneficial for their health and well-being."


Participants at the NYSUT Health and Safety Conference brainstormed ways to combat stress, including:

  • Dancing and music
  • Going to church
  • Hiking
  • Making art
  • Jiu jitsu
  • Meditation or yoga
  • Naps
  • Building social supports 
  • Pets
  •  Watching the Travel Channel and planning vacations 
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Getting a manicure, pedicure or massage 
  •  Sex 
  • Cooking or gardening


The American Federation of Teachers has workplace stress fact sheets and questionnaires available at www.aft.org/sites/default/files/br_stress0807.pdf.

To take advantage of NYSUT's confidential, free Social Services program, go to www.nysut.org/resources/special-resources-sites/social-services; call 800- 342-9810 ext. 6206; or email socsvcs@nysutmail.org.