In his final piece on living with the 21st century’s number one killer, Steve Mynard, editor of Primary Headship, considers the cognitive dimension – the way we perceive and relate to stressful situations

Each of us interacts with our working environment differently and perceives it differently: a certain stressor may or may not cause a stress reaction in a particular individual. It follows that we cannot label specific aspects of work, such as workload or deadlines, as inherently stressful. Some aspects of work will cause stress for some people and others will thrive on them. In 2000, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA) produced a report entitled Research on Work-related Stress. It identified the  stressful characteristics of work shown in the box, right. The headings used by the OSHA are particularly helpful when it comes to managing stress in your working environment. It is in the thinking mind, the cognitive dimension, that the individual decides, consciously or unconsciously, if a particular aspect of their work is a stressor and whether or not they can cope with it. Let us consider the category of workload/ workpace in relation to the role of headteacher.


There are two distinct types of workload:

  • Quantitative workload refers to the amount of work to be done.
  • Qualitative workload refers to the difficulty of that work.

These dimensions are independent. Repetitive assembly-line work could be classed as involving quantitative overload and qualitative underload. How would you classify your role as headteacher? Workload has to be considered in relation to work pace; that is the speed at which work has to be completed and the nature and control of the pacing requirement. Machine-paced work is to do with production and system-paced working is the realm of call-centre staff and others who have high work rate targets to meet. The pacing of a headteacher’s workload used to be self-paced, which tends to be viewed positively in research. Those people with self-paced roles have more control over their working patterns. The government and LAs now dictate a lot of what you do and your job has become more system-paced, with increased use of targets, for example, and associated increases in pressure and therefore measurable stress. The more control you perceive you have over your workload/workpace the less stressful you will perceive it to be. So, how do you change your perception? You may have come across the concept of a circle of concern and a circle of influence. Imagine a large circle full of all the things that concern you; this might include how you are going to finance getting your daughter through her degree, when you are going to fit in a meal tonight and global warming. Your list of concerns will be large and it is clear that some of these you have more control over than others. This is where the circle of influence comes in. The circle of influence is necessarily much smaller than the circle of concern – but the more you work on your circle of influence the bigger it becomes. You could arrange to meet a financial adviser to discuss your daughter’s future educational finances – it is all about choice and extending your circle of influence. Putting this into the context of your workload/workpace becoming increasingly system-paced – you can choose to make it more self-paced and increase your influence over it. How? Here’s an example. You have statistical targets that are agreed with your LA; that is a given and something you have little control over. How you choose to meet those targets you have considerable control over.

Using the categories

For each of the categories of workplace stress identified by the OSHA you and your staff have opportunities to work together and take greater control of your working life. As you do so your perception of stress in the workplace will change – and so too should staff absence patterns.

Characteristics of stress Context to work:

  • Organisational culture and function – Poor communication, low levels of support for problem-solving and personal development, lack of definition of organisational objectives.
  • Role in organisation – Role ambiguity and role conflict.
  • Career development – Career stagnation and uncertainty, under or over promotion, poor pay, job insecurity, low social value to work.
  • Decision latitude/control – Low participation in decision-making, lack of control over work.
  • Interpersonal relationships at work – Social or physical isolation, poor relationships with supervisors, interpersonal conflict.
  • Home-work interface – Conflicting demands of work and home.

Content of work:

  • Work environment and work equipment – Problems regarding equipment and facilities.
  • Task design – Lack of variety or short work cycles, fragmented or meaningless work, underuse of skills, high uncertainty.
  • Workload/workpace – Work overload or underload, lack of control over pacing, high levels of time pressure.
  • Work schedule – Shift working, inflexible work schedules, unpredictable hours, long or unsocial hours.

Read Steve’s other articles on stress: