Education International
Education International

New Zealand: Teachers under Pressure

published 24 March 2011 updated 24 March 2011

In a recent survey of members, the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) was shocked to discover 86 per cent of teachers experience stress at work, while 24 per cent of respondents said stress levels are ‘of concern’ or ‘intolerable’. The union is tackling this problem everyone needs a way to release the pressure. Bianca Zander looks at teachers’ favourite ways of dealing with stress.

Putting pedal to the metal of her Suzuki Bandit motorcycle does it for early childhood head teacher Meg Moss. “When you’re riding a motorbike, you have to give it 100 per cent concentration. Cornering, watching out for cars. It’s physically challenging as well as enjoyable.”

A few weeks ago, Meg gave up one of her Saturdays to run a rural education seminar in Kaitaia but made it more fun – and took the stress out of the trip – by riding there from Auckland on her bike.

Before bikes, Meg kept bees. “When you’re working with a beehive, you can’t think about anything else.” For a hobby to work as a stress release, she says, it has to be all consuming. “Find something outside of work that’s interesting and relaxing, something that’s really different.”

Good advice. And in the survey, almost 85 per cent of respondents said they used hobbies and interests, including music and other arts, to reduce stress. Only one method was more popular, and that was spending time with friends and family.

Heart stopping

At least one teacher surveyed said they had little time left over for socialising once they’d met the commitments of the job. “The job is not 9-3, it is 7.30-6.30, plus 8-11 at night and one day per weekend.” As for raising the issue of overtime with management, the same teacher said she was the management.

Others have learnt that protecting time with family and friends is essential to lowering stress. Last year, South Island primary school teacher, Sally Smith, developed a heart condition from work-related stress. She ran up against a dictatorial boss who made her life difficult – in and out of the classroom. Colleagues left by the handful, but due to a large mortgage, Sally had no choice but to stay. “I had to think, ‘What do I need to do to get through this?’”

For Sally the solution was counselling, which is an option used to reduce stress by seven per cent of those surveyed. Although counselling did not remove her boss, Sally learned to react to her differently. “Every time she screamed or overreacted, I learned to see her with compassion.” And now when they have a major dispute, Sally delegates the stress to her union. “I am not strong enough to question her on my own so I get the union to fight my battles when I need them to.”

Quick fix

Nearly 80 per cent of members said they made it through the school year by holding out for holidays and just over half said they reduced stress by getting away for the weekend. At least one teacher said they found it impossible to believe that going away was an option. Some blamed the sheer volume of work required, or the planning involved in implementing National Standards.

One third of those surveyed said they had used alcohol to reduce stress, and 10 per cent said they relied on prescription medication. Happily, drinkers were in the minority. More than twice as many – almost four out of five surveyed – said they turned to sport and exercise for stress reduction.


Meg encourages colleagues at her Early Learning Centre to take an interest in each other’s hobbies and tries to accommodate time off for staff to do what they need to do. Among the current team are an avid patchwork quilter and a martial arts enthusiast. “She uses how she thinks about martial arts to teach the kids physical skills like how to fall safely. Her interest makes her a better teacher.”

By Bianca Zander, New Zealand Educational Institute

How teachers deal with stress

NZEI surveyed 240 educators about how they deal with stress. Many had more than one way of coping.

  • Exercise and sport – 78.6%
  • Hobbies and interests, including music and other arts – 83.6%
  • Yoga, tai chi or similar practices – 13%
  • Spending time with friends or family – 95.4%
  • Religion or other spiritual expression – 26.5%
  • Alcohol – 34.5%
  • Prescription medication – 9.7%
  • Alternative medicine – 16%
  • Peer counseling – 23.9%
  • Professional counseling – 7.1%
  • Holding on until the holidays – 78.6%
  • Raising the issue with school management – 53.4%
  • Going away for the weekend – 55%
  • Contacting the teachers’ union – 17.2%