How Can School Leaders Support Staff With Mental Health Concerns?

The mental health of educators is a growing concern around the world. One in twenty UK teachers now report mental health problems lasting more than 12 months and half of teachers feel their mental health has declined during the COVID crisis. With the impact of increasing work-related stress, schools are now more likely to employ individuals who have long lasting mental health conditions. Individuals suffering from such conditions are likely to be the most vulnerable during times of crisis. There may also be an increasing number of colleagues who experience short term mental health difficulties, caused or impacted by workplace demands.  

Mental health difficulties can impact an individual’s ability to function well in the workplace and may lead to increased sickness absence, sometimes long term. With 57% of education professionals saying they do not feel able to share their mental health issues with employers, it is essential that senior leaders understand how to recognise the signs of mental ill health and know how to support individuals with short and long term conditions. 

Signs of Mental Ill Health in the Workplace

  1. More frequent sickness absence
  2. Appearance – taking less care with appearance, sudden weight gain or loss
  3. Taking on too much work and working too many hours
  4. Tardiness in arriving at work or missing deadlines
  5. Changes to socialising with colleagues – erratic or socially unacceptable behaviour, drinking more alcohol or smoking more than usual
  6. More irritable or angry than usual or getting into conflict with others
  7. More withdrawn than usual or showing loss of confidence 
  8. Over excitement or euphoria
  9. Finding it hard to concentrate and stay focused in meetings or increased errors in work
  10. Finding it harder to remember things or forgetting tasks
  11. Over reaction to problems that arise

Having a Conversation About Mental Ill Health

If school leaders recognise signs of mental ill health in a member of staff, they should consider setting up a meeting to discuss this. This meeting needs to be handled with great care, patience and sensitivity. Leaders need to consider whether the workplace culture provides the right environment for staff to speak openly about their mental health and ask for help.  An underlying culture of trust and openness in their school provides the right foundation for supporting the mental health concerns of staff members. Without this, staff may be fearful to discuss their mental health needs and accept much needed  support. 

The UK charity MIND has a useful booklet on managing employee’s mental health which includes guidelines on how to have a conversation with someone about their mental health. It is important to ask the right questions in the right way if the employee is to be encouraged to open up about their struggles. An employee may prefer to discuss their problems with another member of the leadership team. They should be offered this option. 

Questions to Ask

• I am a bit concerned about you. How are you doing at the moment?

• You don’t seem yourself at the moment. Is everything okay?

• I’ve noticed you have been late for school a lot recently, which is unlike you.  Is everything okay?

• I would like to help you. What can I do to help?

• Do you have any suggestions for how we can improve things for you at school?

• What support do you think might help best?

• Have you spoken to your doctor or looked for support anywhere else?

The Importance of Confidentiality

Respecting confidentiality is crucial if trust is to be created.  A failure to respect confidentiality can potentially undermine the trust of all colleagues in both the leader and the process. 

  • Leaders must be prepared to assume responsibility for confidential and sensitive information and understand that this information cannot be shared without the employee’s permission.
  • It helps to create policies about who is made aware of any information disclosed. The circle of confidentiality should be as small as possible. 
  • It is important to reassure the individual at the outset that any private information they share will be confidential unless they wish it to be shared with others. 

Individualised Support

Each individual’s experience of mental health problems is different and support needs to be tailored to the needs of each individual. One size does not fit all. 

Leaders should check on the legal framework in place in the country where they are operating as in some places employees with mental health conditions are afforded specific rights in the workplace. In the UK for example, mental health difficulties may fall under the provisions of the Equality Act of 2010, which protects employees with a disability from discrimination in the workplace. Disability includes both physical and mental impairments, which are substantial (not trivial or minor) and long term (12 months or longer or shorter term but recurring). Employees do not have to have a diagnosed mental health condition in order to be protected by this legislation. Once the employer is made aware of the employee’s condition then they are obligated to support the employee by discussing reasonable adjustments to their working conditions. 

The UK Department of Health and the NHS both recommend that it is good practice to consider workplace adjustments for anyone who is affected by a mental health condition or unmanageable stress at work, regardless of whether impairments are substantial and long term. This is well worth considering for all school leaders, as providing a high level of support for employees may help them to maintain effectiveness in the classroom, avoid them taking long term sick leave or resigning their post and build supportive and trusting relationships throughout the whole school.

Offering Adjustments to Working Conditions 

Short, medium or long term workplace adjustments can help address employees symptoms or the underlying causes of their condition. These adjustments can be incorporated into a Workplace Adjustments Plan.

If you would like to receive a template and exemplar Workplace Adjustments Plan, please email me with your request to theposprincipal@gmail.com

Creating a Workplace Adjustments Plan

  • Following an open and practical conversation with the employee about how their work impacts their mental health, leaders should ask the individual what they need, as they are usually the best experts in managing their condition and adjustments should be tailored to the specific circumstances of the individual.
  • Leaders must be realistic about what they can offer. The leader should discuss with the employee the consequences or “knock on effect” for other staff members and pupils/students of the adjustments that are being discussed and work with the employee to develop a plan that is reasonable and will work for the school as well as the employee. 
  • It is important to be flexible, as some mental health conditions can be episodic and adjustments may need to be implemented as and when required and revoked when not.
  • The leader and employee should consider how the adjustments will be communicated to other team members to alleviate perceptions of favourable treatment.
  • The plan should include an agreed time to review the support measures, to check if they have been effective or whether any further adjustments are needed.
  • The plan may be in place for just a few weeks to support an employee through a difficult time or, for those with longer term mental health conditions, much longer. 

Suggested Adjustments to Working Conditions for Teachers

The following is a comprehensive but not exhaustive list of  adjustments that may help to support a teacher experiencing poor mental health. 

Working Hours

  • Providing more flexible working hours 
  • Take them off the cover rota to protect their planning periods
  • Considering the provision of extra non-contact periods to allow them to leave early 1-2 days each week or provide extra planning and marking time. 
  • Take them off the duty rota
  • Enabling part-time or job share arrangements for those with long term mental health conditions

Completion of Tasks

  • Allow additional time to complete tasks e.g. report writing 
  • Where possible, provide support to share the burden of completing tasks
  • Provide more flexibility with completion of Appraisal/Performance Management targets
  • Give them more time or a flexible framework to comply with expectations related to implementation of change in school
  • Provide adjustments to expectations around parents’ evenings

Job Role

  • If there is lack of clarity around their role that may be causing them to be stressed, then provide a clear job description and/or mentoring/coaching
  • If certain classes/subjects are bringing extra stress, consider how they may be relieved of these through changes to their timetable 
  • If they are a form tutor and there is a deputy form tutor, they could be relieved of these duties
  • Consider whether they need additional training to help them to cope more effectively with their role
  • Consider whether they can be assigned to a different role within the school on a temporary or permanent basis

Additional Roles and Responsibilities

Relieve them from or provide additional support for 

  • Middle leadership roles
  • Organising school events
  • Attending residential trips
  • Working group or committee work

Conflict with Others

  • Provide coaching on how to overcome and address conflicts with colleagues/parents
  • Provide mediation between colleagues if consented to

Working Environment

  • Make the environment more pleasant e.g. attending to a rundown classroom 
  • Make the environment more comfortable e.g. replacing a chair that causes back pain
  • Ensure an appropriate workspace is provided e.g. office space for when another colleague is teaching in the colleague’s classroom
  • Provide a quiet room or safe space to go to if feeling overwhelmed

Follow Up and Ongoing Support

  • A leader should keep in frequent contact with the employee and monitor their wellbeing through regular one-to-one meetings 
  • A leader should carry out frequent, informal check-ins and consider visiting teachers in their classroom, if this will not impact negatively on their mental health
  • A leader should consider assigning a buddy/mentor/coach to support the employee if the employee agrees this would be helpful

Seeking External Support 

In some schools, workplace adjustments may not be possible, as the financial or cultural context may not support this approach. In others, employees may not be prepared to open up about their mental health problems sufficient to discuss workplace adjustments. The least that leaders can do in this situation is show concern and suggest the individual seek outside support.

  • The employee should be encouraged to speak to their doctor about their mental health.
  • If the school subscribes to an employee assistance programme, such as that offered by Education Support in the UK, the employee should be informed of this and be provided with a contact number.
  • If the school offers free or subsidised support from a mental health professional, the employee should be reminded of this and encouraged to make contact. Likewise if the health cover offered by the school includes psychological services, this should be flagged.
  • Where the employee is a member of a trade union, works council or similar, they may be able to offer support and the employee should be pointed in this direction.
  • Charitable and quasi-governmental organisations, such as the Mind in the UK, can signpost people towards further support.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Workplace adjustments will only succeed if they occur in a supportive environment. Raising awareness of mental health conditions among the leadership team and wider staff can increase trust and reduce the harmful attitudes that may undermine workplace adjustments. Developing and communicating the school’s policies outlining what potential support is available, may encourage employees to seek help when they are in need of support. Offering adjustments to all employees, should their circumstances require it, could help normalise workplace adjustments and make it easier to implement them.

Creating a positive school culture and a psychologically healthy workplace can of course significantly mitigate the negative impact of work-related stress on an employee’s mental health and ensure that the whole community is flourishing but that is an article for another time.

If you would like to receive a template and exemplar Workplace Adjustments Plan, please email me with your request to theposprincipal@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “How Can School Leaders Support Staff With Mental Health Concerns?

  1. Pingback: What are the Most Effective Steps Schools Can Take to Support Teachers’ and Leaders’ Mental Health and Wellbeing? | The Positive Principal

  2. Pingback: How Do Schools Develop an Effective Staff Wellbeing Policy? | The Positive Principal

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