Teaching staff and education professionals have the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain. Ofsted’s ‘Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers’ report highlights that while teachers love their profession, and enjoy teaching and seeing pupils flourish, the negative elements outweigh the positives. With staff suffering from high workloads, lacking work-life balance, facing access to limited resources, in some instances, and experiencing a perceived lack of support from senior leaders, this often leads to poor occupational wellbeing for many teachers.
There has been an increased emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, with a greater focus on teacher wellbeing in Ofsted’s ‘The education inspection framework’. Quite often, mentality and attitude trickles from the top down; therefore, a negative mindset can have a significant impact on pupil wellbeing too.
Findings on overall support from senior leaders in the wellbeing report were mixed. Senior leaders were seen to positively contribute to wellbeing by some. When this is the case, senior leaders support a positive work culture, are accessible to staff, listen to them, value them as professionals, recognise their work and support their autonomy. On the flip side, however, teachers also reported that senior leaders are thought to contribute to poor wellbeing. This is in instances when there is poor communication with staff, an autocratic management style, workload pressure, and insufficient support and collaboration with staff.
So, what can be done in order to minimise the risks, and ensure schools foster a compassionate and positive culture which supports and retains the best talent?
Starting with staff
A good starting point would be to consult with staff about their perceptions and realities of wellbeing provision within school. The actual process of consulting can often be a very useful first step to developing more trust. With this trust often at the heart of wellbeing, it may be useful to conduct some anonymous feedback activities.
The whole aim of the process is to raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing, identify which practices are working, identify practices which may be potentially eroding wellbeing, and then create an action pathway for change.
At the heart of this change are two principles:
- Staff buy-in
- Staff independence
By identifying the quick and long-term wellbeing wins, and enabling staff to not be wholly reliant on the school to support their wellbeing, a gradual change process may well occur. This could be similar to the Kübler-Ross Change curve. Although this was originally devised to explain the emotions around bereavement, it is still a useful tool to elaborate on workplace wellbeing change attitudes, especially during coronavirus (COVID-19).
A sensible second step to implementing wellbeing change is to look at the language and negative stigma associated with mental health. We all have mental health and often the term itself can conjure up historical negative or biased images. Illustrating that stigma could actually prevent staff accessing support is a great teaching point, along with identifying conscious and subconscious language and attitude bias, i.e. using words and phrases like:
- Currently experiencing mental health challenges, rather than suffering mental illness
- Has encountered mental health being compromised, rather than has a history of mental illness
- Has completed or has died by suicide, rather than has committed suicide
The next step might be to upskill staff in talking and listening skills. This can be done quickly, effectively and even in-house. It is all about understanding that it is ok to be vulnerable and share mental health challenges. Often, it is not even about finding a solution. The actual process of listening, and occasional talking or interjecting, may well be enough to reduce or eliminate stigma, to build trust and help staff feel supported. The destination of a solution is not always necessary, but the journey or process is crucial and may suffice on its own as the solution.
In terms of independent staff wellbeing, it could be very useful to encourage some staff to organise a steering group with the aim of setting up regular wellbeing sessions, either in or outside school. Some schools actually financially support these groups, and can even allocate additional PPA time for designated steering group staff.
Another step would be to identify support or signpost agencies. This will already be in place in schools, but there are a growing number of charities, local health authority initiatives, Community Interest Companies, for example, that can add even more depth and richness to the landscape of wellbeing support. Hub of Hope is an excellent local service which identifies local support agencies. Equally, there are various free upskilling courses such as the Orange Badge Scheme for Suicide Prevention that is operated by Lancashire Mind.
Sometimes, at the heart of wellbeing is CPD and professional standards, job competence, satisfaction and career progression. These areas can provide the basis for unrest, unease and compromised mental health and wellbeing. As such, wellbeing provision may also present an opportunity to review CPD within schools, and I often use various questioning techniques such as Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations, Johari’s Window and Open Coaching to support the SLT in having those challenging conversations which may have origins in mental health.
Susan Scott Fierce Conversations (2002)
Ross McWilliam (BA Hons, MSc, PGCE, CMI Level 7 coach, MHFA England Mental Health Trainer is a former teacher, and has been a freelance trainer, keynote speaker and author for the past 10 years.
Tel : 07771-916788
W : www.mindsetpro.co.uk