Taking care of teachers’ health is SMART

Jul 26 2016

By Professor Ron Plotnikoff*

As many of us appreciate, Hunter teachers play a vital part in shaping the mindset of our upcoming generations through both their words and actions. But who’s looking after the teachers themselves?

They are arguably more time-poor than the general population and thus prone to stress and burn-out. With their busy schedules and significant workloads, many struggle to get sufficient physical activity in their working weeks, which compounds their overall health risks.

Confirming this, data from the Teachers Health Foundation shows that diabetes is one of the major underlying causes of claims and hospitalisation for its members.

That’s why our new pilot health study (SMART Health) at the University of Newcastle is specifically targeting teachers by providing free exercise specialist sessions, psychological counselling and a support package to those diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or at risk of developing the disease.

Surprisingly, there is very little existing research literature for this group, given their importance as role models for children and the considerable need for their own physical and mental wellbeing needs to be met.

Our research team is hoping to recruit 90 participants for the SMART (Support, Motivation and Physical Activity Research for Teachers) Health trial, from among more than 3000 staff working in the Hunter’s teaching system.  

We are three-quarters of the way through the recruitment process, with over 60 teachers enrolled and hopefully the last of the trial spots will be taken up in coming days.

It’s open to permanent, casual or temporary teachers employed in pre-, primary and secondary schools, both public and private, across the Hunter. Eligibility criteria include having Type 2 diabetes or being at risk of developing the disease and not meeting physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity plus two days of muscle-strengthening exercise per week.

Many people do not realise that they are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Some of the factors that increase a person’s risk include increasing age, having a family history of diabetes, having had high blood sugar levels previously, smoking and also taking medication for high blood pressure. It is not always possible to determine how “at risk” a person is just by looking at them.  

Over 40 per cent of Australian teachers report high levels of occupational stress and the teachers in our region seem to be under similar strain, with millions of dollars paid out in recent years to teachers claiming for psychological injury. We’re hoping that beyond preventing and managing Type 2 diabetes, physical activity will bring mental health improvements as well. 

SMART Health participants are being randomised into three study groups and all groups will be assessed on physical activity behaviours and clinical measures including blood biomarkers and self-reported mental health.

One group will undertake five sessions with an exercise specialist and a psychologist while the second group receives the same sessions along with a support package that includes a smartphone app, website, print materials and a support line for additional advice over nine months.

The third group serves as a control, receiving standard care. They will be offered the exercise specialist and psychologist sessions as well as the support package at the completion of the study.

Schools and individual teachers won’t be identified in the research.

Teachers can find out if they’re eligible for the study by completing a 5-minute questionnaire at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/uonsmarthealth or emailing SMARTHealth@newcastle.edu.au

Article first appeared Newcastle Herald Opinion piece.

* Professor Ron Plotnikoff is the Director of UON’s Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and Deputy Director of the HMRI Cardiovascular Research Program.