“The thing that is causing people to get ill at work and adversely affect their quality of working life is line managers who are not socially and interpersonally skilled. They don’t have the soft skills that are needed.”
So says Professor Sir Cary Cooper, the UK’s leading expert on organisational wellbeing. With that in mind, is it any wonder that many staff don’t feel they receive the support they need to manage their demands of work and home?
Research previously carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London identified 12 leadership competencies proven to prevent or reduce staff stress. The competencies in question are focused largely on people and soft skills – but you won’t find much mention of them within the National Professional Qualifications. Once in post, many school and MAT leaders often won’t have the time or opportunities needed to properly develop such skills, especially in early leadership roles.
Yet there are also plenty of leaders who manage to bridge this gap successfully. What is it that they do which ensures staff are given effective support – particularly those facing serious personal or family issues, such as bereavement or separation? Below are the steps that they follow, listed in priority order:
1. Gather information
Successful leaders know how important it is to understand what’s going on with their team members, both in and out of work. As a starting point, they’ll schedule check-ins and one-to-ones, and ask staff how they are. They’ll do this regularly, authentically and really listen to the responses.
2. Identify with others
They’ll show compassion and empathy, and be capable of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Not everyone will have these as natural traits, but they can be learnt and are essential to have.
3. Build trust
They can keep matters confidential where appropriate, encourage team members to share information with others when necessary, and direct staff towards a range of helpful support networks both inside and outside school.
4. Respect people’s time
They will agree any workload adjustments with the team members affected and provide reasonable time off as appropriate.
5. Keep everyone updated
They will ensure that any forms of support offered within the school, and entitlements to paid and unpaid leave, are clearly detailed within policies and staff handbooks.
6. Provide help
They will put in place an assistance scheme of some kind that will allow staff to take advantage of confidential support and counselling services away from school.
Workload and lack of both time and money are the most commonly cited reasons for school staff failing to receive the level of support they need – yet often it’s down to a failure to appreciate the importance of such support and an inability to plan for it as a priority.
Yes, there is a time and financial hit to providing the above forms of support to staff – but it will be dwarfed by the cost of doing little or nothing. Providing your staff with insufficient support will soon cause your annual bills to grow by the tens of thousands, and see to it that your school gets left behind in the ongoing battle to attract and retain key staff.
Mark Solomons is a school governor, author, leadership consultant and the founder of School Wellbeing Accelerator