How can school leaders better support staff wellbeing?
Student wellbeing has been an ongoing concern during the course of the pandemic, with limited social interaction and more time indoors. But according to a recent report, the mental health of teachers has also taken a significant hit.
According to data from Tes, less than two in five school staff now say they feel confident performing their role. Worryingly, the report also suggests that this figure has plummeted during the pandemic.
Figures show 38 per cent of school staff in the UK say they feel confident in their role, compared with 79 per cent reported last year when a similar survey was published. The new Tes Wellbeing Report 2022 also reveals that 67 per cent of teachers in the UK agree that their workload is unmanageable. This is three times higher than when staff were asked the same question just over a year ago.
The report says teachers being required to teach online, often for the first time, and having to create teacher-assessed grades after exams were cancelled could be factors that have led to a drop in confidence among the school workforce.
According to a similar survey in late 2020, active participation such as involving staff in planning decisions and giving them a sense of control, was shown to influence confidence and pointed towards effective coaching and goal attainment to increase staff self-confidence. Poor communication in the workplace was also identified as a factor leading to low confidence, whereby unmotivated staff may begin to question their own abilities.
Sinéad McBrearty, chief executive of Education Support, a charity that supports the mental health and wellbeing of staff in schools, said the report "sheds light on the severe impact of the pandemic on the teaching profession".
"Teachers and other school staff are struggling with heavy and intense workloads," she said. "They are struggling with work-life balance and often don't receive enough of the right support".
She added: "Proper recognition of the importance of teacher mental health is essential to support the people who are responsible for teaching and inspiring our children."
So what can school leaders do to support their staff?
To provide some solutions Tes spoke to Vicky Saward, head of training, and Monisha Jefcut, training manager, in the Schools Division at the Anna Freud Centre. They advise school leaders to adopt the CARE approach, which suggests they: be CURIOUS; be APPROACHABLE; REFER when they need to; and show EMPATHY.
“Historically, there may have been pressure points within the academic year that are particularly challenging for school leaders and school staff. However, for many working on the frontline in schools, it feels that the last two years have been one constant pressure point as we cope with the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
“Colleagues at the Anna Freud Centre originally developed the CARE mnemonic as a simple way for school staff to think about ways to support students’ mental health and wellbeing. Here, we will look to apply CARE principles to the equally important job of supporting staff wellbeing.”
The four principles of CARE:
1. Be CURIOUS
One of the most challenging aspects of being a school leader is not being able to implement the changes that you know are needed, because you haven’t got access to the resources that you need. This can be especially true when thinking about staff wellbeing. When this happens, it is important to recognise that even keeping staff wellbeing on the agenda can be powerful. Offer plenty of opportunities for staff to talk about what aspects of work are having a negative impact on their wellbeing. We recommend conducting an annual staff wellbeing survey and sharing the results with staff. You can find lots of support for doing this and for the development of a whole school approach towards mental health and wellbeing in our free 5 Steps framework.
2. Be APPROACHABLE
Active listening is the starting place for any productive conversation about wellbeing. Many headteachers set aside a small pocket of time every week that staff can ‘book’ to meet with them and share concerns and anxieties. However, line managers may not always be best placed to have these reflective conversations with staff. Many schools have found that providing supervision or formalised reflective spaces can be powerful. By supervision we mean a regular, safe time and place for school staff to reflect critically, discuss and talk through their work and the impact the work is having on them.
These conversations are not part of performance management but about a non-managerial, collaborative relationship with the focus on empathy and shared understanding. It is a term that is better understood by people within the social work or clinical practice fields, and we may have some way to go to build understanding of its purpose and value within schools, but some schools have already found that supervision has real potential to meet the need expressed by many school staff for peer or social support.
3. REFER, when you need to
Of course, school leaders are rarely responsible for referring staff to services provided by mental health professionals, but they can be important providers of signposting to mental health and wellbeing support, when appropriate. This can include a staff wellbeing pathway within your mental health and wellbeing policy so that staff are clear on how best to navigate their own way to support, both inside and outside school.
School leaders have a duty to know how their staff can access specialist support, for example access to employee assistance programmes or support in times of crisis, and to share this information both with individual staff members and in places where all staff can find it. For further examples of staff wellbeing support, look at our Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Schools booklet.
In society as a whole, one possible silver lining of the undoubted impact of the pandemic on wellbeing is an increased readiness to talk about mental health. Ensure staff know of a range of ways to reach out, in whatever way feels most appropriate to them. Remind staff of support options on a regular basis, and not as a tokenistic gesture. A colleague could lead on this as a regular update in staff emails or briefings.
4. Show EMPATHY
A school leader showing empathy can be incredibly reassuring for staff struggling with their wellbeing. Empathy is not just about being kind or agreeing, it is also about allowing different viewpoints to be shared and opening up opportunities for things to be different. It is helpful to acknowledge current difficulties; this can validate people’s experiences, making them feel empowered to face challenges.
The notion of self-empathy can be helpful: the idea that when trying to support others it is helpful to notice and recognise what is happening in you. It allows you to make more full use of past and current experiences when navigating challenges.
Self-empathy is not the same as self-compassion. Showing kindness to yourself as a leader, modelling self-care and self-compassion sends a direct message to your staff that safeguarding your mental health is a key component to protecting your own wellbeing, and they can follow your example.
This article was written by Helen Chapman, reporter for Tes. Tes is a global education business with a global community of 13 million educators. Their innovative digital tools, software and services are used by school leaders in over 25,000 schools in more than 100 countries. For more ways to help support staff wellbeing at your school visit the Tes whole-school wellbeing hub.