STAFF WELLBEING IN YOUR SCHOOL – STEPHANIE O’BRIEN
It’s fair to say that ‘wellbeing’ has become a bit of a buzzword in recent times. Employers are realising that the wellbeing of their staff has a direct correlation to their performance and efficiency. In schools, the workload and expectations faced by teachers means that for Principals, wellbeing should be at the top of the agenda. Sadly, that is not always the case.
There are several reasons for this. I recently came across blog post that argued that many of the ‘wellbeing’ techniques being offered to teachers are actually not all that helpful, and I can’t say I disagree.
Often in schools, wellbeing sessions are put on and they are nothing more than a box ticking exercise with no long lasting benefit. However, many are truly committed to enhancing the wellbeing of those in the workplace, be that a school or elsewhere. The aim is to move beyond the ‘sticking plaster’ culture that exists in so many places of work towards something that will be effective as a long term response to negativity, stress and anxiety that seems to be embedded in our society.
There are undoubtedly many things that we are told to do ‘in the name of all things healthy’ that I either a) simply don’t want to or, b) would find utterly ineffective for my mental wellbeing even if I did do them (and the fact that I was doing all this through gritted teeth probably negates any positive effect.)
Rather than promoting hot baths and calming candles (which definitely have their place when it comes to de-stressing), schools need to embrace a mindset change, where they wake up feeling positive about the day ahead as opposed to having that awful Monday morning dread. Challenging negative self talk (that can so spectacularly railroad a person’s self esteem), developing resilience and learning to focus on the positives can be literally life changing.
These techniques, however, need to be completely integrated into the context of the school or workplace. Each school and the staff working in them will be facing different challenges that affect their wellbeing; it’s therefore important to incorporate their reality into any training. Identifying precisely what it is about the job that is causing stress or low morale in your school is important before executing any wellbeing plan. Throw all the yoga you want at teachers, but no amount of downward-facing dog is going to improve wellbeing if you don’t address the root cause.
For example, any member of staff who has worked in a school will know that the behaviour of the students can be an influencing factor in their enjoyment at work. It’s arguably the case that poor behaviour in schools is the biggest cause of stress for teachers; an idea that is supported by research. If this is the case in your school, then it’s time to examine the behaviour policy and ensure it is being followed consistently. An interesting challenge that I have come across too often is that staff are ignoring poor behaviour because implementing the policy requires too much time and energy. I am in no way saying that this is an excuse for allowing standards to slip, however it is an important factor for leadership teams to consider.
It’s then crucial that teachers see the link between enforcing the behaviour policy and their wellbeing. They need to feel supported by their line managers and the Principal but empowered that they can deal with issues that arise in their classroom. There is an element here of taking responsibility. As a society we are quick to blame others for things that go wrong in our lives and this is no different in schools. Teachers, before you jump to blame the SLT for behaviour issues in school, take a good look at your own practice; are you consistent when it comes to rewards and sanctions? Do you follow the policy correctly? Do you follow up where appropriate? If not you’re undermining your own authority in front of students and creating unnecessary work for the leadership. A successful school requires a united front from the staff. Without that, there’s little SLT can do on their own. So before you email your line manager and pass on the responsibility, make sure you’ve done everything that is in your power first.
There is also the cold, hard fact that, in schools, there is always a feeling on training days that unless it gives you more time to mark, or to develop that scheme of work (because the deadline is looming), then it is simply a waste of time. In the current climate, teachers are often made to feel that any time not spent shovelling through the to-do list is not worth it, even when the time is dedicated to their own wellbeing. This is far too widely accepted and is a mindset that needs to change, otherwise teachers will reach burnout before they reach the tender age of 40, and the passion that once lit them up when they walked into a room full of hungry minds will have died a long time before that.
It’s also important to realise that wellbeing is not an excuse; an excuse to not work hard; to not embrace change; to not produce a high quality of work. This concern was raised during a conversation I had with a Principal, who saw the value of wellbeing training but also the pitfalls. This comes back to the fact that a crucial element of wellbeing is each individual understanding the importance of taking personal responsibility, and promoting a move away from the blame culture that seems to be so richly embedded into society. If staff can see how taking responsibility for their own thoughts and behaviours can improve their own wellbeing and that of those around them, there will be an exceptionally powerful shift in your school.
However, there are still those days when even Mr Happy would be glum. Life throws challenges our way and sometimes you want to do nothing more than cry in front of the TV, stuffing yourself with chocolate. Sometimes, we just need to accept that it’s okay to have bad days. The trick is (and it’s by no means easy) knowing how to bounce back from life events that threaten to overwhelm and cripple you.
Learning real, practical techniques that combat stress and negativity is, I believe, an absolute necessity in schools. Sometimes, teachers will, like many others, just need to plough on, wearing a mask of ‘everything is okay’. But that should not be a default setting. Teachers should expect to be provided with training on how to mentally protect themselves from the stresses that they face. That doesn’t mean that one suddenly delights in vegan food produce and signs up for the next marathon. It just means that, even on the bad days, you know how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and simply feel happier (once you’ve finished binge watching Netflix, of course).