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Ask Andy – Blog 10

Stress, Covid and Why this Half Term Break is Critical for You

This half term has been the most demanding I think anyone in schools can ever remember. There are a number of reasons for this. I want to note them here, I want you to be aware of them and add to them in your head with your own challenges.

  • Firstly, there was the planning over the summer for a return which was fraught with fear over the unknown as we returned to school. So many questions. We were told that children don’t get Covid and yet clearly, they do even if it is asymptomatic, they are carriers.
  • Then there was the management of staff coming back in, many of whom had been shielding for months previously. How would this play out?
  • There was the return to school of the children and how we were going to get children back safely whilst keeping parents at the gate to minimise risk. How were we going to do Open Evenings, Parents Evenings, and the like?
  • Then there was the inevitability of bubbles needing to self-isolate when a positive test was received and the worry and fear about how that was going to play out in terms of health and lost learning. Not to mention the late-night phone calls asking people to self-isolate. It has felt a little like a school based track and trace approach!
  • Across all of this, there has been a new, and often confusing national vocabulary grow from the pandemic and its impact in schools. Who would have thought this time last year we’d be talking about vectors, bubbles, tiers and lockdown?

I could talk about COVID costs and other challenges but I’m going to stop here because you get the point. This half term has been unlike any other and those working in our schools compare the pressure to living on your nerves everyday in high levels of stress and anxiety and clearly, we all deal with those stresses and anxieties differently.

But here is the thing. Whilst stress in itself isn’t bad for us and in many ways is our body’s natural response to potential threats, prolonged stress is bad for us. The pressure that schools have been under this term correlates with a high level of stress over a prolonged period.

The impact of this can manifest itself physically in a number of ways: poor sleep, interrupted sleep, a loss of appetite, a lack of energy and a feeling of complete lethargy. It has even been known to affect sex drive and the proper functioning of the usual menstrual cycle in women.

However, the biggest concern for me is that prolonged use of the stress hormone Cortisol affects the ability of the immune system to fight infection. It is part of the reason why when we get to a half term break we get ill as the body has been operating at fight or flight for so long that when we stop work and the day to day stress stops, our immune system is unable to fight  infections.

Our immune system is the front line in our defence against COVID and it needs to be robust and strong. It is for these reasons that we need to dial down the stress levels in school during term time. I have heard plenty of stories this term of knowledgeable school leaders decreasing workload stress in school for staff as they know there is enough for them to be stressed about without workload adding to it.

We live in exceptional times and if there was ever the need to make exceptions to usual practice, it is now. Cut down on the asks of staff and recognise the stress from, for example, not being able to share the staff room together. This is the place where staff come to let off steam. How else is this steam being vented? How are we giving staff the chance to let off steam in a safe environment?

More widely Local Authorities can, and I know are, dialling down their ask of schools. Similarly, schools do not need an impending Ofsted inspection adding to the stress. Schools need lifting, and an announcement of no inspections until the end of the pandemic would ease stress levels in school considerably and help to keep staff healthy. Ditto school tests and exams. By all means hand the tests to schools for their own internal use but we shouldn’t be comparing schools with schools when some of had less learning due to COVID and are working to all intents and purposes in a state of emergency.

This half term for me is critical and school leaders need to be supporting staff to nourish and rebuild their wellbeing. Many schools I know are closing the school gates for the entire week, but beyond that we need to be insisting that any schoolwork is kept to a maximum of one day.

Staff then need to treat themselves to things that nourish their immune system. If we don’t, then we can expect many more staff absences next half term and post-Christmas, and not necessarily for COVID reasons.

This half term, try to get quality sleep. I know the temptation is to have a few drinks to celebrate the end of a tough term, but alcohol impairs quality sleep so try to keep it light touch! Get outdoors as much as possible and get plenty of fresh air. For me, I will be focusing on redesigning my garden but for others a nice long walk along the beach or in the hills is so good for clearing your head. Get out into the autumn and take some photos to celebrate the beauty of the world we live in. These activities are not only great for mindfulness but help with the quality of your sleep.

The quality of the nutrition that we put into our bodies plays a significant part in building our immune system and our first line of defence to fight infection. This means plenty of fruit and vegetables and a good balance of what constitutes a healthy diet. Not to forget hydration which is equally key.

Although you won’t feel like it for the first few days of half term, try to get some exercise. It is so good for your mental health and wellbeing and building muscle mass is good for burning calories which is good for weight loss! Win, win!

The other thing is to make time for family and friends even if this is socially distanced or over zoom. Human contact is good for the soul and a key part of what makes us the sociable animals that we are.

For weeks now you have been focusing on what is in front of you and an immediate challenge. Try to take some time to plan for the future. Research holiday destinations and try to make plans that are not date dependent. I planted a huge number of bulbs in my garden last week and am really looking forward to seeing how they look in the spring.

Finally, I just want to take a moment to thank you for what you are doing in our schools up and down the country. I am full of admiration for what you are doing daily. You have met with an invisible foe and a challenge never seen in the education system before and are doing amazing things for your school communities.

It is time to stand down now for a short while and think of you.

Have a fantastic week and look after yourselves.

Ask Andy

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