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What are the Most Effective Steps Schools Can Take to Support Teachers’ and Leaders’ Mental Health and Wellbeing?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 23rd January 2021

There is a host of data from around the world which suggests that teachers and school leaders experience significantly more work-related stress than the general population and are more vulnerable to burnout than the average employee. The overall wellbeing score for teachers and school leaders is also lower than the general population, with education professionals suffering more depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts than average. Yet each day we place the safety, welfare and education of our children in their hands. We do this without any thought for supporting the mental health needs of our educators to ensure they are able to optimise their effectiveness. My last two articles  What is Burnout and How Can Teachers and School Leaders Overcome It?  and  How Can School Leaders Support Staff With Mental Health Concerns? are my most read articles to date. I have been contacted by many teachers and school leaders over the last three weeks, sharing their stories and thanking me for the practical guidance that I offered here, that many felt they were not able to find elsewhere. What does this say about the position that the education sector finds itself in? Why is better support for the profession not available?

Teaching and school leadership are acknowledged globally as a high risk professions for poor mental health. Other high risk professions are much better at acknowledging these risks. They put proactive measures in place to ameliorate potential burnout or significant mental health issues. Stress First Aid (SFA) for example, is a self-care and peer support model originally developed by the US Marine Corps and Navy, to address mental health problems that may arise from involvement in critical incidents. This approach has been adopted and adapted by occupations such as fire and rescue, police, healthcare and the probation service. The model includes actions that help to identify and address early signs of stress in workers and their colleagues. The adoption at organisational level of a comprehensive, practical approach focused on the specific needs of professionals within the organisation has proven to be highly effective in a wide range of contexts.

The websites of governments, professional organisations, mental health charities, and other groups and individuals across the English speaking world are awash with advice and information about supporting mental health. It is an almost impossible task for school leaders and educators to wade through the overwhelming multitude of recommended strategies, to determine which are research-based, which are proven to be the most effective and how such strategies might be brought together to form a cohesive model to make a real impact. In June 2020, the UK Department for Education announced the publication of a wellbeing charter that will set out commitments for educators on actions schools can take to boost their mental health. This charter has so far failed to materialise. The Welsh government has published a booklet Staff Health and Wellbeing, which comprehensively addresses issues of health and safety at work but fails to provide a clear model to support mental health. Neither governments nor teaching organisations in Canada, USA, New Zealand or Australia offer anything remotely resembling the Stress First Aid approach for schools. What the teaching profession needs is its own Stress First Aid – a universal, research-based model developed around the needs of educators, that can be adapted by and implemented in schools around the world.

So if there was such a model what might it include? What are the most effective steps that schools can take to determine the needs of their staff and help avoid serious mental health problems developing?

  1. Change the organisational mindset to view stress and mental health problems as occupational risks that need to be addressed in the same way as other health and safety at work hazards. The effectiveness of Stress First Aid is built upon the acknowledgment that stress is a normal and expected consequence of the job. This removes the stigma, or sense of failure that employees feel when they experience work-related stress and helps them to seek support before manageable stress becomes something more serious.
  2. Educate all stakeholder groups to understand how staff mental wellbeing positively impacts a school’s core purpose. There is a significant body of research to show how stress and mental ill health impact both the effectiveness and turnover of teachers and school leaders and the consequences this has for student outcomes. These need to be shared so that the whole school community is on board with the need for mental health support for staff.
  3. Ring-fence a budget for staff mental wellbeing. While much can be achieved with very little, setting aside a budget to support staff mental health can make a significant difference. It also sends a message that a school is genuinely committed to the improving wellbeing.
  4. Carry out an annual staff wellbeing survey to identify the most common causes of stress and monitor the implementation of policies and strategic goals. Many schools are now carrying out a staff wellbeing survey. The right survey can produce valuable data about how staff are feeling and what structures and systems might need to be put in place to reduce stress and support mental health. A survey can inform policy and where a policy is already in place, provides a valuable tool to help monitor the effectiveness of its implementation. It is important to bear in mind, however, that for a staff wellbeing survey to be most effective, it should be anonymous and can, therefore, not be used as a tool to support the specific mental health needs of individuals.
  5. Develop policies, structures and systems around mental health as part of a comprehensive whole school wellbeing policy, tailored to the context of the school. Although a wellbeing policy is now a requirement for schools in some parts of the world, policies are often, “off-the-shelf” and fail to take account of the needs of the individual school community. They also often pay only lip service to the mental health of employees. An effective policy is both proactive in addressing the causes of workplace stress identified in the annual survey and reactive to staff mental health needs as they arise. It should be developed in collaboration with all stakeholder groups as this forms the foundation of any school’s commitment to mental wellbeing.
  6. Embed staff mental wellbeing into the School Improvement Plan or Strategic Plan. Policies around mental wellbeing stand to be most effectively implemented when they produce meaningful goals for schools to work towards that are supported by senior leadership and boards of governors/directors/trustees.
  7. Develop and implement Individual Wellbeing Plans. The needs of individual staff members can be addressed through the use of Individual Wellbeing Plans, which focus upon proactive steps each employee can take to support their own wellbeing. Individual Wellbeing Plans identify contributors or triggers for stress and how these can be avoided; flag early warning signs that stress is becoming unmanageable and suggest steps that the employee and managers can take to support an individual when this occurs. If you would like to receive a template and exemplar Individual Wellbeing Action Plan please contact me.
  8. Appoint an effective wellbeing team, headed by the right wellbeing lead. Many schools now appoint a wellbeing lead. Of course it is important that the person heading up a wellbeing team is passionate and knowledgeable about their field but they also need to possess leadership qualities if they are to successfully drive the implementation of the wellbeing policy and goals set out in the strategic plan. A wellbeing lead needs to have authority if they are to lead the charge, they must command respect among colleagues, be experienced in change leadership and be highly collaborative. An effective wellbeing lead needs a team of collaborators who they can draw ideas from, test ideas with and delegate responsibilities to. Regular opportunities should be provided for the wellbeing lead to report back to the head of school and board of governors/directors/trustees, to provide meaningful support and accountability.
  9. Reduce workload -while the purpose of this article is not to examine the causes of teacher/school leader stress, the importance of reduction of workload in supporting wellbeing in schools is so fundamental that I feel it needs mentioning here. Many factors may contribute to unmanageable teacher/school leader stress but research shows that workload is by far the most significant. Findings from studies around the English speaking world show how teachers/school leaders are more likely to report signs of burnout, symptoms of poor mental health and diagnosed mental health conditions as their working hours increase. In the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020 (Education Support, 2020) for example, there was a significant increase in respondents reporting family/relationship issues, suicidal tendencies and intentions to leave the profession among those working more than 60 hours per week. Setting parameters around workload should, therefore, be a main focus of any wellbeing policy and strategies to reduce workload should be a key part of any school improvement plan. Over the next few weeks, I will examine workload more closely, together with other causes of teacher stress and consider how the model set out above can be used to address these in a way that is meaningful for individual schools.

Above I have outlined a model for the most effective steps that schools can take to support teacher/school leader wellbeing. Many schools are doing their best to support staff mental health under impossible circumstances, with little proper guidance. For others, the publicity around employee wellbeing represents a Pandora’s box that they have no intention of opening. A clear model for addressing school-based stress, improving staff wellbeing and supporting the mental health needs of individuals, would provide an effective structure for schools to make a real impact. Without such a model there is a risk that the efforts of schools to support good mental health will be misguided, budgets will be wasted and staff will remain unsupported.

If you are an international school teacher please take a few minutes to complete my latest survey International School Teacher Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Pandemic 2020-21. Please also share this with colleagues. The data from the survey will inform a research report and the findings, including recommendations for international schools, will be published in a number of educational publications.