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May 21 BigDug
May 21 BigDug

Teacher wellbeing – Watch out for post-lockdown staff stress

March 25, 2021, 10:44 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • The aftermath of school lockdowns may have left some staff struggling – school leaders need to be extra vigilant and keep their doors open, says Jenny Salero...
Teacher wellbeing – Watch out for post-lockdown staff stress

The light at the end of a very dark tunnel is twinkling into sight.

It’s been a long time coming for schools. Staff, pupils and parents have been through a year like no other. Our colleagues have been right in the middle of things, enduring the stresses and strains of juggling their duties with family life during a disorienting time.

School leaders will be balancing their desire for things to return to some sort of normal in the next few months with a heightened sense of watchfulness. They will be making sure that any staff wellbeing issues are addressed before they fester and become long term sickness absences.

Some colleagues may have been through a traumatic time in their lives. They may have lost family members, or their families affected by the economic fall-out of lockdowns. School leaders will be acutely aware of the vulnerability of some of their colleagues.

Even before covid, stress was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence amongst the UK workforce, with almost half of all working days lost due to stress related ill health, and the pandemic has placed additional pressures on staff.

Anxiety

Some of the main causes of workplace stress are well known. These include increased workload, poor communication, lack of job control, poor relationships and lack of support from managers, impending or recent change and performance management or disciplinary procedures. The upheaval and anxiety of the past year and its aftermath hasn’t helped.

Although stress itself isn’t an illness it can lead to health concerns, including anxiety, depression and more physical manifestations such as back pain which can result in long term absence. It makes sense to prevent stress by safeguarding wellbeing.

Creating a wellbeing culture sounds complicated but it is pretty simple. If your school has the following characteristics, then the foundations for good staff wellbeing will already be in place:

  • Senior leaders are always available and often have an open-door policy.
  • They are approachable, welcome feedback and will listen to staff concerns.
  • Governors and trustees get the same treatment. The door is open for all.
  • There is good, open communication between all staff, whether they are in school or continuing to work remotely.
  • Senior leaders and line managers link up with staff regularly and keep a watchful eye for those early signs of poor wellbeing - and then take steps to have that discussion and check they are alright.

Senior leaders play a central role in ensuring staff wellbeing and they should be among the first to be aware if a staff member is finding things hard. By getting to know the staff and the struggles they may be facing the sooner they will be able to identify any issues and take action.

Concerns

To reduce the risk of employees going off with stress related illness, school leaders should be vigilant for early signs of poor wellbeing. Sudden dips in morale and changes in character could be a clue that all is not quite right.

If those concerns are justified then adopting a partnership approach, in which the leader offers to help resolve any issues with the staff member is a good approach. This approach could include helping to smooth out a rocky work relationship, offering training or giving additional support if the employee is involved in a disciplinary or performance process.

Kicking off those first steps by initiating a conversation is crucial. This can be tricky, but some basic preparation will help. If you are unsure about how you are going to express yourself during that meeting it is helpful to make some bullet point notes beforehand. Some people may be defensive but reiterate that you are having the conversation out of concern for them and that you want to find ways of helping them by working together.

Support shouldn’t end at the point where a staff member has to be signed off from work with a stress-related illness.

If a member of staff does go off sick, particularly if it is work-related stress, that does not mean that they can’t be contacted. Keep a reasonable, regular dialogue going.

Remember that the longer that your colleague is away from the workplace and out of touch the harder it will be for them when they feel that they can return.

If a colleague is off for a few weeks, consider beginning your sickness absence procedure for long term ill health.

This usually includes holding a welfare meeting to find out more about the reason for their absence, and may include an occupational health referral to establish any underlying condition, its effects, the likelihood of it continuing and what support measures you can put in place to help a return to work.

Disciplinary

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for staff to suffer stress as a result of performance or disciplinary concerns. In these circumstances performance processes will pause until the employee returns.

However, it may be appropriate, especially when it concerns a serious safeguarding matter, to proceed with any disciplinary procedure so that the process at the root of that stress can be concluded sooner rather than later.

In most cases, contacting sick employees while they are off work is appropriate and useful, but this should always be done supportively. Take extra care if an employee is off for work-related stress, giving careful consideration to the nature and timing of any contact.

In most circumstances, arranging a welfare meeting and discussing the employee’s key concerns and ways to resolve these issues may actually help their return to work.

Return to work interviews can be a great tool, whatever the reason and length of absence, by helping to establish if a work-related issue is causing illness and if steps can be taken to alleviate their stress.

Remember, there are lots of services and support available to help you manage these situations, especially if your member of staff is off with a mental health issue. Seek advice from HR, occupational health and health and safety experts.

They can provide training on managing sickness absence, support in conducting risk assessments, and help you to guide employees back into the workplace.


How to support staff

School leaders can support colleagues to minimise the risk of work-related stress in a range of ways. These include:

  • Set up employee forums so staff feel that they have a “voice” and can express their concerns and offer suggestions.
  • Make sure your managers are trained on effective personnel management.
  • Put appropriate policies in place to cover risk areas such as bullying, grievance, performance management and discipline and ensure that staff are aware of these and managers are trained.
  • Empower staff by giving them a proper stake in their school; involve them in the development of their role, and their department.
  • Get staff involved in any covid-19 related risk assessment review you conduct and speak regularly with your more concerned employees about the measures you have or plan to put in place to further prevent the spread of covid within your school.
  • Hold regular performance reviews with staff and look to agree realistic objectives, timescales and support to help them achieve these.
  • If change is afoot, plan it well in advance, consult your employees appropriately and early on and genuinely take on board their suggestions/feedback.

Jenny Salero is an HR expert at Judicium Education, a professional services company working with more than 1,700 schools across England. Judicium Education advises on health and safety, HR, legal services, clerking, governance and data protection. Find out more at judiciumeducation.co.uk.