The current state of mental health among senior leads is poor. According to a recent survey undertaken by the Education Support Partnership 80% of senior leaders suffer from work-related stress and 40% from symptoms of depression. 63% are considering leaving the profession altogether. Left unaddressed, this could leave the profession without enough school leaders capable of properly leading staff and supporting pupils.
Senior leaders should therefore put their own psychological needs first. One possible approach could see leaders take part in twice-weekly counselling sessions, where they can offload in the presence of an attentive and understanding listener.
Research has shown that counselling can reduce toxic stress (chronic, unrelieved stress that’s dangerous to the immune system and a key trigger for mental and physical ill-health) to a form of manageable stress. Toxic stress leaves heads ill-equipped to ensure that they’re leading a mentally healthy school.
At the same time, senior leaders should be able to oversee a school culture that values all staff, while removing the psychological hazards of shame and blame. An NASUWT teacher survey carried out in 2017 found that 52% of recipients felt disempowered in their roles, with 59% of this group attributing those feelings to a culture of blame and criticism. A further 75% of respondents felt they were being constantly judged and evaluated.
Being able to feel valued is key to maintaining mental health. In practice, this will involve senior leads being attentive to staff successes, such as calming an angry child or providing emotional support to colleagues. Bookending the working week with talking circles, in which staff can discuss their feelings while led by a teacher trained in group facilitation, could be a further way of fostering a more empathetic whole-school culture.
There’s a great deal of scientific research that shows triggering oxytocin in the brain reduces stress levels and fosters a sense of wellbeing. If resources allow, it would therefore be beneficial for all staff to have daily scheduled access to an oxytocin-boosting environment.
This could be a ‘reflect and restore room’ reserved for staff – a work-free sensory zone that includes a combination of coloured lighting, soothing music, pleasant smells, comforting fabrics and an external heat source, such as an electric blanket.
Mental health within schools is an issue that has to be tackled from the top down, with the DfE, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners all working to balance the need for good academic outcomes with the wellbeing of school staff. There should be national recognition of how important it is to monitor the mental health culture within schools – so let’s see staff wellbeing become a key performance indicator.
Dr Margot Sunderland is director of the non-profit mental health training provider Centre for Child Mental Health (CCMH) and co-director of Trauma Informed Schools UK.