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How Do Schools Develop an Effective Staff Wellbeing Policy?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 30th January 2021

In my last article  What are the Most Effective Steps Schools Can Take to Support Teachers’ and Leaders’ Mental Health and Wellbeing? I listed nine steps that schools can take to determine the needs of their staff and help avoid stress-related mental health problems developing. One of these steps is the development of a comprehensive wellbeing and mental health policy. I have been contacted by a few school leaders and mental health/wellbeing leads this week asking how they should go about doing this.

Is This a Tick Box Exercise or More?

My first question to those wanting to create a policy is always “do you want a meaningful and effective policy or to just tick a box?” If you want to tick a box then it is very easy to find example staff wellbeing policies online and adopt these for your school, with no or only minor adjustments for the school’s context. I have strong feelings about policy development in any area of a school’s business. Policies should inform practice and be living and breathing documents that reflect the context of the school. They should be developed slowly and collaboratively to ensure they meet the school’s needs. If this is done well, then a policy will provide clarity, guidance and reassurance for all stakeholders who use it. If it is done badly, then it may cause confusion or end up gathering dust on a shelf or getting lost in the bowels of the school’s shared drive. During my 15 years as a Principal, I was reluctantly involved in a few shoddy, time wasting cut and paste policy creation exercises. I was also fortunate to lead talented teams through some highly effective policy development processes, drawing on my background as a lawyer, for which I am grateful almost every day. Based on this experience, my first piece of advice is, if you want something meaningful then policy has to be developed collaboratively and be tailored to the context of the school.

The Need for Collaboration

Like any other policy, a wellbeing and mental health policy should be developed with input from all affected stakeholder groups. The forming of a policy committee or working group, with representatives from a cross section of the school community is the best way to make this happen. A staff wellbeing policy does not just impact SLT and teachers but affects all teaching and non-teaching staff, including teaching assistants, office staff, cleaners, kitchen and other auxiliary workers. All these groups need to be represented in the policy development process, in addition to your HR team. Volunteers with an interest in wellbeing are the best option but some people with specific skills or valuable perspectives will need to be invited to participate. Representatives of each group need to ensure they are not only interested in staff wellbeing but have time to commit to this process.

Concrete Commitments or Statements of Intent?

Policies are generally the big, overarching ideas that establish a framework of philosophies, aims and objectives. They set direction and guide and influence day-to-day actions/decision-making but are usually broadly drawn and allow for flexibility. The clauses that make up a wellbeing policy are often statements of intent rather than concrete commitments. For example the model Health and Wellbeing Policy of the UK teachers’ union the NASUWT states:

The Employer or Governing Body Shall:

5.2.2   Actively demonstrate recognition and acceptance of common mental and physical health problems by creating an environment where staff feel comfortable in asking for help.

5.2.3   Act early and provide consistent support.

These clauses contains a broad commitment but do not state how the employer/governing body should go about creating an environment where staff feel comfortable in asking for help or what early and consistent support should look like. The words of the policy are open to very wide interpretation. There is a danger here that a wellbeing policy drafted in this way may be nothing more than a document full of platitudes, which turn out to be quite useless in providing clarity, guidance and reassurance around day-to-day practice and do nothing to improve staff wellbeing. There are three ways to address this:

  1. Develop a policy that contains a number of concrete commitments to improve staff wellbeing.

2. Ensure that where there are “statement of intent” clauses that there are also procedures, protocols, codes of conduct, agreements and other more concrete documents that set out what practice should look like.

3. Dispense with a staff wellbeing policy and focus instead on concrete ways to improve staff wellbeing through changes to working conditions which can be evidenced in the contract of employment or other existing policies, such as HR or performance management/staff appraisal policies.

I will deal with each of these three approaches in turn.

1. Making Concrete Commitments in a Staff Wellbeing Policy

I have reviewed tens of staff wellbeing policies from schools around the world in the last few days. Very few of them make any concrete commitments to improve employees’ working conditions or help them to address their stress levels. Examples of concrete policy clauses I have found include:

  • The school will provide annual wellbeing training to all staff to help them to understand how to manage their stress levels.
  • The school will provide access to external psychological services, in the form of up to 6 one hour sessions per year with a provider nominated by the school.
  • The school will carry out an annual workload survey to determine the workload of staff in different roles around the school.
  • All staff will be provided with clear job descriptions for both their main role and any roles of additional responsibility.
  • The school will appoint a Mental Health First Aider who will receive annual training in Mental Health First Aid to allow them to support staff with their mental health needs.
  • The school will provide monthly one-to-one coaching with a member of the senior leadership team for all members of the middle leadership team .

Making concrete commitments in a staff wellbeing policy is rare. This may be because the nature of a policy document is to be general rather than specific but it may also be because schools wish to avoid making concrete commitments to staff wellbeing that will tie their hands. If this is the case, then we need to reflect upon the purpose of a staff wellbeing policy. If there are no commitments made to change working practices or offer tangible support, then what is the point?

2. The Use of Procedures, Protocols, Codes of Conduct, Agreements and Other Documents

While policies are usually broad, procedures have a more narrow focus and describe, step by step, what actions to take in specific instances. Procedures should be strictly followed to achieve a desired outcome. Wellbeing policies that contain statements of intent make more sense if there are sets of procedures, protocols, guidelines, codes of conduct, agreements and other documents that make clear how these statements of intent are to be implemented in practice. In NASUWT example give above, a procedure could be developed establishing how staff ask for help with their physical or mental health and how SLT and governors respond. This provides reassurance for employees and guidance for leadership. Likewise consider the following, taken from the staff wellbeing policy of a UK school.

  •  Employees shall treat colleagues and all other persons with whom they interact during the course of their work with consideration, respect and dignity.

I would argue that while this statement of intent is well-meaning, it would be much more effective if supported by a Staff Code of Conduct that outlines appropriate conduct for employees in their interactions with each other.

Consider this clause, also from a UK school.

  • The headteacher will ensure that all staff enjoy a reasonable work-life balance and lead by example in this regard.

In practice this clause, again while well-meaning, is likely to have zero impact on the work-life balance of staff. If we want to make real improvement, we need to be bold enough to make concrete commitments around workload in the form of workload agreements. I was once principal at a school where a workload agreement was in place when I arrived. It had been negotiated with leadership by the works council (Betriebsrat -similar to a trade union in some German workplaces). I must admit that at the time I was horrified, having come from a culture which had no respect for work-life balance and where the job of the principal/headteacher was to make staff work as hard as possible. I look back now slightly ashamed of my former self and with great admiration and respect for my predecessor who took the bold step to commit to a workload agreement. The agreement, which made a range of concessions to help staff manage workload, including allowing teachers to arrive late and leave early on days when they were not teaching, had a tangible positive impact on their wellbeing.

The thought of developing procedures, protocols and other documents to implement all policy statements found in a comprehensive wellbeing policy, is of course horribly intimidating. I would argue that it is, therefore, better to develop a short and simple policy, as a starting point, with a small number of core ideas/principles that can be properly supported by documents to guide implementation. This is preferable to developing an unwieldy policy full of well-meaning statements of intent that will have little real impact. Done this way the policy, although far from comprehensive, has true meaning and will change day-to-day practice for the better.

3. Focus on Contractual Changes or Changes to Other Policies

The most meaningful changes a school can make to support staff wellbeing are likely to come about, not through the development of a staff wellbeing policy but through changes to their terms and conditions of employment or modifications to HR and other policies. I am writing for a wide audience here of state, private and international schools around the world, whose contexts vary enormously. The flexibility that different schools have around the terms and conditions of employment will differ significantly due to legislative frameworks or financial considerations. I would argue that the following will have considerably more impact on staff mental health than the development of a staff wellbeing policy. The list below is far from exhaustive.

  • Clear guidelines around the rights to flexible working hours.
  • Leave entitlement for sick leave, parental leave, sabbaticals and other leave categories that go beyond the statutory minimum in countries where the minimum is low.
  • Contractual limits on the number of evenings and weekends that staff are expected to work each year.
  • Contractual limits around the maximum number of teaching periods staff can be forced to work each week, without additional pay.
  • Changes to performance management/appraisal policies to increase the emphasis on peer-led professional growth models and move away from outdated top-down approaches.
  • The development of a protective grievance procedure for staff who feel they are being bullied.
  • Guidelines and procedures around workplace adjustments for those experiencing health problems as discussed in my article  How Can School Leaders Support Staff With Mental Health Concerns? together with clear protocols that guide the absence and return to work of those on sick leave with long term mental or physical health issues.

So where does that leave us? Hopefully with an understanding that addressing staff stress and mental health is a complex matter with many factors to consider. Not even the best wellbeing policy can provide a panacea to improve staff mental health. At worst, a policy may satisfy a tick box exercise but prove unhelpful in guiding day-to day practice and end up being discarded as unworkable.

My advice is to start small rather than being overambitious. Form a wellbeing committee and carry out a wellbeing survey to find out what the most important issues are that need addressing in your school. Discuss what changes are possible to achieve and then make a commitment to make changes, no matter how small. This should be done through the development of a staff wellbeing action plan, which sets out goals and implementation strategies. If a wellbeing policy is a priority then it is better to create a meaningful policy, through a process of collaboration, that contains concrete commitments or is supplemented by procedures, protocols and other documents that guide day-to-day practice. Alternatively, choose instead to make a real impact to staff wellbeing, through agreeing variations to the terms and conditions of employment, or reviewing other key policies that impact everyday life. Incremental, concrete improvements to staff wellbeing can be built upon over a number of years to make significant and lasting change that will benefit all.