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Heads Must get Proactive to Improve Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing

February 20, 2019, 9:30 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • The problems we’re seeing with respect to staff wellbeing and mental health won’t go away unless heads start getting proactive, writes Mark Solomons...
Heads Must get Proactive to Improve Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing

We’re in the midst of a teacher crisis. Recruitment targets have been missed since 2012, and over a fifth of new teachers are currently leaving within their first two years. We see regular headlines and reports that highlight the increasing mental ill-health of staff, with one 2018 teacher survey from Leeds Beckett University finding that 54% of respondents reported having poor mental health.

Recent research from the University of Exeter has further found that primary school teachers are at significantly higher risk of encountering long-term mental health problems compared to professionals in other sectors, with almost a third experiencing worryingly high levels of psychological distress.

With these and other school challenges adding to a general sense of doom, it’s hardly surprising to see the growing number of staff wanting to join those who have already left the profession. When you add in higher staff costs and lower real terms funding to the mix, the future doesn’t look rosy at all.

Incoming changes

The proposed changes to the Ofsted Framework in 2019 provide one possible bright spot, however, and hope that change is on its way. It’s a positive sign that Amanda Spielman has already rejected suggestions to put the new framework’s introduction back a year, even before consultation.

As welcome as these incoming changes might be – if and when they arrive – there are a number of steps that all leaders can take in the interim to tackle some of the aforementioned issues, and create an inclusive and collaborative culture that will see more staff enjoy their work, thrive, and deliver improved outcomes for pupils. Indeed, many leaders are taking action already – but are they looking in the right place?

Psychological safety

Schools are challenging places with – quite rightly – a high level of personal accountability expected from staff at all levels. Even as we (hopefully) move to a broader focus beyond testing and data, there will always be a need to deliver strong academic outcomes.

Yet this high level of accountability has to be matched with an awareness of psychological safety. In practice, this amounts to creating a climate in which people are comfortable with being and expressing themselves. In such a climate, staff will feel able to try new approaches, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, feel free to speak up without fear of reprisal and have their views listened to.

According to Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, an organisation that can combine high levels of accountability with a high degree of psychological safety will find itself in a ‘learning zone’, whereby “The focus is on collaboration and learning in the service of high-performance outcomes.”

This is the type of culture that leaders should look to create – one where wellbeing is simply part of the organisation’s daily routine.

Organisations that neglect to provide sufficient psychological safety risk entering an ‘anxiety zone’ in which “People fear to offer tentative ideas, try new things, or ask colleagues for help, even though they know great work requires all three.” In such a culture, staff will be perpetually fearful and worry extensively about failure.

Create the right culture

In November 2018, health secretary Matt Hancock launched a new government initiative that urged employers to ‘help improve the health of their staff and the nation,’ via staff perks such as free fruit, bicycle loans and counselling.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with pursuing any of those activities, but they’re unlikely to make much difference if the right culture isn’t already in place. What they have in common is that they tackle symptoms, rather than causes. They can be filed alongside ‘wellbeing days’, mindfulness training and similar strategies, used to tick some ‘wellbeing boxes’ and pointed to as evidence that an organisation is working to ‘solve’ the current crisis.

By all means, organise a wellbeing inset day. Arrange opportunities for staff to collectively partake in physical exercise. Hold a yoga session. But if wellbeing among staff at your school is poor the day before that inset session, it’ll remain poor the day after.

Instead, focus on the behaviour of your leaders, and the extent to which they actively involve, inform and engage staff in what’s going on throughout the school. Here follow nine ways in which you can start building that type of culture right now…

1) Involve staff in decisions that affect them

Start at the beginning with the school’s purpose, vision and values. To what extent were these co-created with staff? Have you explicitly agreed the everyday behaviours that would be seen if said values are lived every day?

2) Keep staff in the loop

Listen to staff feedback and suggestions, and where you disagree or would prefer to follow an alternative course of action, always explain why. This doesn’t mean involving staff in spurious or lengthy after-school meetings, but rather asking them to only attend meetings where necessary – meetings that start and finish at agreed times.

3) Show your own vulnerability

Everyone makes mistakes, so own up to yours. Share those moments when you got something wrong with others and talk to them about what you learnt.

4) Adopt behaviours that reduce staff stress

In 2007, researchers at Goldsmiths College, University of London set out a series of management behaviours and competencies that could help build a culture where staff thrive – try sharing these with your leaders and making them form part of your own performance management and appraisal objectives.

5) Model what you want to see happening

As well as demonstrating effective leadership behaviours, this might also include taking breaks in the staff room, endeavouring not to work through lunch, leaving at reasonable times and not sending emails during evenings and weekends – they can always be saved as drafts or sent via a timed delay.

6) Make praise central to your culture

Staff and leaders alike will tend to focus on the things that don’t get done, rather than those that do. You might already give shout-outs, issue certificates, send congratulatory emails or even distribute ‘ well done’ cards, which can help – but more effective still is when senior and middle leaders proactively seek out those members of staff doing the right thing each day in order to acknowledge their efforts.

7) Engage with leaders and staff every day

Create opportunities for productive conversations to be had, and provide staff with greater autonomy by encouraging them to make their own decisions.

8) Recruit for attitude and culture fit

Beyond seeking someone that possesses the right kind of knowledge, take time to properly induct and onboard your new recruits so that they fully understand the culture you want them to adopt.

9) Ask, ‘what would the best school in the world do?’

Too often I hear, “We can’t do that,” or “There isn’t the time!” Instead, think about what you can do.

Contemplating what ‘the best school in the world’ would do in a given situation doesn’t mean you have to match it, but it can serve as a good way of shifting thinking and raising aspirations.

Mark Solomons is a school governor, author, leadership consultant and the founder of School Wellbeing Accelerator.

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