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How to lay the foundations for staff wellbeing

May 5, 2022, 11:10 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • A whole school-strategy for staff wellbeing can reap rewards in teacher retention and student attainment, says Mark Solomons
How to lay the foundations for staff wellbeing

The outlook for the teaching profession is challenging.

With stress related ill-health the number one cause of long-term staff absence and second to minor illnesses for short-term absences - and job satisfaction in English schools one of the lowest globally - it isn’t surprising that recruitment targets have been missed since 2012.

Currently, a third of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

How can we best change that dynamic, improve staff wellbeing and in turn improve pupil outcomes and mental health? 

Now is the time to take stock, address the shortcomings in our often ‘sticking plaster’ approaches and transform school culture with wellbeing built into its foundations.

Yoga and cakes aren’t enough

Far too often, staff wellbeing is addressed through piecemeal activities to try and show appreciation – a staff wellbeing day, cakes at meetings, yoga and other activities or a quick shout-out to acknowledge participation in a project or some other achievement.

One-off activities are easily organised, but with no long-term effect. Once the cake is eaten, the yoga is over and the shout-out forgotten, nothing will have changed for the staff who feel under-valued and over stretched. 

There is nothing wrong with any of these, they are just not the place to start. It’s like trying to build a house from the roof down on shaky ground. But if you begin with firm and strong foundations - making staff wellbeing an integral part of the school culture - it simply happens each and every day.

Taking risks

Research by behavioural scientist Amy Edmundson, from Harvard University, into factors that increase the performance of people and teams in highly successful organisations found the most important consideration was psychological safety – how safe an individual feels in taking a risk, trying something new and whether this would be acceptable and supported by their managers and peers. 

The results of the study illustrated a need for balance between feeling psychologically safe and accountability:

  • Low levels of both promote apathy – there isn’t a high need to deliver, nothing needs to change. This isn’t something we usually see in schools
  • Low accountability and high psychological safety is likely to decrease staff effectiveness and motivation – staff remain comfortable
  • High accountability and low psychological safety creates high levels of stress as staff feel unsafe and unsupported and with the feeling ‘you are only as good as your last set of results’. This is prevalent in some schools
  • High accountability and high psychological safety - the most effective combination – it creates the learning or high performance zone. Staff feel supported in trying new approaches, knowing that any initial bumps in the road will be recognised as part of the learning process. The school can develop at pace, staff wellbeing and job satisfaction is likely to be higher. It’s a recipe for success

So, making sure the culture is one of high accountability and high psychological safety is important. If everyone feels part of the school community and is contributing to the school moving forward, staff feel they can rely on their managers and peers.

Add to that clearly defined roles and expectations, and there is meaning to their work. Staff will feel like they are making a big difference.

Laying the foundations

To embed wellbeing in in the school culture, start with the foundations. This means establishing effective leadership behaviours and processes that support them.

Leaders need exposure to those competencies that have been proven to prevent and reduce stress in the staff they lead, together with the time to plan and practice. If leaders become the role models for positive behaviours, teachers and all staff will follow, and in turn they become role models for their pupils.

Wellbeing charter

The DfE’s recent Education Staff Wellbeing Charter (tinyurl.com/wellbeingcharter), illustrates greater Government awareness of the impact of staff wellbeing on the effectiveness of schools, colleges and MATs, and the outcomes needed for their students.

However, it is voluntary and includes 11 school commitments, some that require significant change without the provision of additional resources. 

This may prevent its universal adoption, but it is a step in the right direction towards building a fully professional education sector, fit for the 21st century. 

The charter describes wellbeing as: “a state of complete physical and mental health that is characterised by high quality social relationships”.

Looking at the commitments in the charter, three particular points highlight to me the most important considerations for those leading in education:

  • 3. Give managers access to the tools and resources they need to support the wellbeing of those they line manage

Teachers taking on leadership roles usually remain responsible for heavy teaching loads. Finding ways to give leaders more time to develop their skills and knowledge, as well as more effective CPD, will mean they are better equipped to lead others.

There will be more capacity to carefully consider and plan the needs of staff, how best to support them and as a result reduce the stress many feel and improve their wellbeing and performance.

  • 10. Protect leader wellbeing and mental health (sub-category)

It is interesting it is granted the term sub-category, although at least its importance is recognised.
This is a challenge for governors and governing bodies in supporting their senior leaders and for senior leaders in recognising they have to focus on themselves as well as others.

  • 11. Hold ourselves accountable, including by measuring staff wellbeing

School, college and MAT leaders would not dream of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to delivering student outcomes and instead robustly measure and track progress to drive improvements and deliver the best results.

Should staff wellbeing be treated any differently?

Managing risk

Schools need systems in place to manage the risks of workplace stress and poor wellbeing.

The Health and Safety Executives Management Standards provide a useful research-based and independently evaluated framework. The six standards include consideration of workload, levels of autonomy, support from line-managers and peers, promoting positive relationships, understanding roles and responsibilities and managing change.

As with any action taken from within the school development plan, the impact needs to be measured. An evidence-based anonymous staff survey can provide the initial baseline and track future performance - providing scores, benchmarks and additional feedback. When using a third party you may also receive recommended actions.

Good staff wellbeing and a mentally healthy school is a win-win situation, especially as there is evidence that staff working conditions and the school culture have a direct impact on students’ learning and attainment.

They also have a direct link to better staff retention, lower recruitment and a reduction in staff absences which reduces the need for supply teachers and maintains continuity of teaching. This all adds up to a reduction in overall financial performance and better student outcomes. 

Isn’t it time that staff wellbeing is woven into the very foundations of every school and is simply part of its culture - something that simply happens every day?

Mark Solomons is CEO of the School Wellbeing Accelerator, Welbee