With stress levels thoroughly tested throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and 35% of teachers recently reporting they would “definitely” not be in education by 2026, schools need to prioritise maximising teachers’ wellbeing now more than ever. We look at what school leaders can do to turn the tide on this challenging outlook.
Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes made a bold prediction about the 21st century. Reflecting on the speed-march of progress in technology and infrastructure, he forecast that, by the turn of the century, most people would only work a 15-hour week – if only that were the case!
Numerous surveys have reported over the years the high number of hours teachers work, both in class and at home – in the past fifteen months alone, 70% of teachers polled in England, Northern Ireland and Wales reported an increased workload, with 95% concerned about the impact on their wellbeing.
Even before the pandemic, it was common knowledge that teachers regularly worked 60 hours or more per week, clocking in the most unpaid overtime in the country. Concordant with these figures are reports that teachers feel overworked, disempowered by new managerial structures and saddled with a lack of self-efficacy to do their job properly. Such stressors make teachers especially vulnerable to professional burnout and mental health issues: in one survey, 50% of education professionals reported that their mental health and wellbeing had declined a little, or “considerably” due to the impact of the pandemic.
So, what can you do to help improve the wellbeing of your staff? We’ve pulled together five top tips that will help you empower your staff, celebrate their achievements and work to further open discussions about mental health.
Appreciate that low wellbeing is a push factor out of your school
Job satisfaction in the public sector has historically tended to be quite high, despite some challenges in pay and work conditions. In some cases this trend has resulted in a managerial (and ministerial) mantra that public sector workers can be treated however you want: whatever happens, they won’t leave the job.
But yesterday’s mantra quickly becomes today’s myth – and in this case a stubbornly persistent one. Pre-COVID, exiting teachers repeatedly reported ‘stress’, ‘pressure’ and ‘a lack of work-life balance’ as the factors that pushed them out of the profession. More than a year on, teachers gave their top reasons for intending to leave the sector as: the profession not being valued or trusted by government/media (53%); workload (51%), and accountability (34%).
Conscientiousness about staff wellbeing, and sense of value, must be a priority for any school that wants to recruit new staff and retain its present faculty. Linking wellbeing to performance measures may be what’s needed to ensure substantial improvements in working conditions for teachers. Not only can this help everyone appreciate how vital staff wellbeing is, but it also highlights the strong link to student wellbeing and performance as well.
Talk and listen – even if it’s not what you want to hear
Lost in the vaulting cathedral of the education system, and against the backdrop of a global pandemic, it’s easy for teachers to feel like they are unheard. This can imbue a lack of self-efficacy in the profession, leaving professionals to feel at the mercy of an indifferent machine of progress – but this doesn’t need to be the case.
Consulting staff about issues in school management that are relevant to their professional expertise should be routine in any school. But asking about their wellbeing is of equal importance – especially given the psychological and health-based trials that many have endured during lockdown. Every informal exchange between teachers already features discussions about what’s generating stress and angst, and how things could be done better. We need to formalise this process and channel the information towards whole-school improvement.
Naturally, formalising discussions about staff wellbeing (in the form of a working group or staff consultation) will involve asking hard questions and hearing hard truths. Senior leaders may see an unexpected side to their school and staff, that they had otherwise been shielded from by their professional – and, by this point in time, physical – distance. These difficulties, however, can be drivers of real change, bringing the whole school into sync on what issues are present and what needs to be done as a matter of urgency, to resolve them in favour of higher staff wellbeing.
As to be expected, school leaders earn several orders more than teaching assistants and early career teachers however the pronounced hierarchy of the school structure, theoretically for pedagogical purposes, can end up affecting the working conditions of teachers as well and, in spring 2021, 24% of teachers intending to leave the sector cited “pay” as the reason why.
This isn’t to suggest that your school should convert into a kibbutz – but school leaders can benefit from appreciating that teachers have a set of skills that allow them to do things they often can’t. Pre-pandemic, many teachers experienced returning from absences to find that they have been covered by SLT and often had to repeat those lessons because they’ve missed content or it hasn’t been explained correctly to the students – and with recent figures showing that between 6% and 10% of teachers in England were forced to take leave due to COVID-related absences in the 2020 autumn term alone, it’s been a challenging period of time for all involved. A more collegial atmosphere in which teachers are valued as having a different, but equally valuable, set of skills could help mitigate the effects of school hierarchy to the long-term benefit of all.
Also, think about humanising leadership teams. As Stephen Drew pointed out in a 2018 post on leaving headship: “It is too easy to slate headteachers and the wider senior leadership teams in schools. The job is incredibly difficult to get right… Perhaps we could all remind them of how good they are every once in a while”. When leaders are doing their jobs well, they desire and deserve praise the same as anyone else. Teachers should feel comfortable to share this praise openly with them.
“Every day is a festival somewhere” goes the aphorism, and schools can begin to harness this fact to great effect in promoting wellbeing going forward. Reinstating special weeks and co-ordinating activities associated with them can be great – from Eurovision to Wimbledon, religious festivals and world international days; all can help channel a welcome sense of pre-COVID normality, and unity, for staff and students. Finding volunteers in the staff body who would like to lead on organising these, with the appropriate support and allowance, can empower staff while facilitating them to pursue a rewarding passion project. By shifting the climate of a school to one of celebration, however arbitrarily, wellbeing of students and staff alike is improved.
There need not be a big reason to celebrate either. Getting through a long week or challenging exam season can be just as worthy of festivity. Being imaginative and creative in finding things to celebrate can yield a list of great opportunities for making staff feel valued and special. Hosting afternoon teas, pampering events, sending out tokens of gratitude – all of these can be deployed to mark such celebrations. As with students, adults don’t need much to feel valued – and much of it can be provided for free, or very little.
Talk about Mental Health
When teachers feel the only option to improve their wellbeing is to leave their job, something isn’t working quite how it should. Many organisations, and not just schools, assume only optimal outcomes when planning and this needs to change.
A few modest suggestions here. Once they appreciate that, pandemic or not, there are systemic features of the profession that result in teachers getting burned out and suffering mental health issues, schools need to provide literature and guidance to help them, and middle-management, identify these issues in their embryonic stages.
A particularly powerful intervention could be to invite a staff member with a history of mental health issues speak openly about this in a staff meeting online or in school. This demands great courage, but those who have suffered with mental health issues are often keen to help steer others away from having the same experience they’ve had. Schools can also be mindful of circumstances where particular challenges are likely to be present – be they handling the needs of challenging class members, contemplating further uncertain times, or similar. It is important to take time and consider all likely outcomes with a practical and prescient mindset.
So, what next? Many schools do an excellent job of managing and promoting staff wellbeing – and have done for many years whereas other schools continue to strive. Wherever your institution falls on this continuum it’s important to appreciate that staff wellbeing should remain a top priority for all school leaders – it is intrinsically linked to recruitment, retention and, ultimately, student performance. In future, for schools with the right orientation and culture towards wellbeing, staff may feel like they’re only actually working 15 hours a week. Let’s come together to prove Keynes right!
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