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Conversations about staff mental health in schools

Written by: Amy Sayer
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7 min read
Amy Sayer FCCT, Author

 

Why there is a need to have a conversation

When I first started researching staff mental health in schools (Sayer, 2020), there was a clear and urgent need for more schools to receive training to destigmatise conversations about mental health and create a culture in which people felt they would be listened to and supported. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Managing daily changes to their role alongside the persistent fear of safety for themselves, their families and loved ones created anxiety and meant that some teachers who had never struggled with their mental health before needed extra support but weren’t always sure how to talk about it.

According to Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index (2021) 77 per cent of educational professionals reported suffering from mental ill health symptoms over the past year due to work, and this is mixed with a potentially toxic combination of 57 per cent of respondents saying that they would not feel comfortable talking to their line manager about their mental health. This implies that many schools might still have a culture of shame and stigma surrounding conversations around mental health. This needs to change – teachers deserve support to recover from periods of mental ill health. Talking about mental health can be hard. The last thing teachers need is to work in a school which inadvertently makes them feel ashamed of certain feelings and does not offer support that could be genuinely life changing, enabling them to stay in the profession for as long as they are able to.

How to identify when colleagues may need further support

If colleagues are struggling with their mental health, they may display a range of physical signs and behaviours (Mind, 2017). This is why knowing your colleagues well matters. The range of physical signs could include:

  • persistent insomnia
  • tearfulness
  • weight loss/gain
  • extreme tiredness
  • headaches/migraines
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • sickness/nausea
  • hypersensitivity
  • racing heart
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy.

 

These could be accompanied by behaviours such as:

  • fight/flight/freeze responses to changes in routine
  • inflexibility/rigid thinking
  • overthinking/excessive worry
  • reluctance to socialise
  • low self-esteem
  • feeling restless or irritable
  • sense of hopelessness or despair
  • needing more reassurance than usual
  • alcohol reliance.

 

While these physical signs and behaviours may not be immediately apparent and could be symptomatic of other conditions, having an awareness of how they may link to poor mental health is important for developing a supportive work culture.

How to have a mental health conversation with colleagues

The practicalities of ensuring that mental health conversations are supportive and show genuine empathy, compassion and care can be developed through staff training. The core elements are as follows (Sayer, 2021):

  1. The time of the conversation is important both in terms of the time of the day and the amount of time given. This could be the first opportunity for a colleague to open up to anyone about their mental health and so it is important that adequate time is made available for the conversation. It may be that the initial conversation is relatively short and that you are able to offer a follow-up meeting to check in on how things are. However, being prepared to allow the colleague the time they need to talk things through can be genuinely life-changing if a safe space is created. Similarly, a colleague may have caring responsibilities which mean that they need to leave straight after school, so asking them to meet then would not always be helpful. It may be that you need to ask them to have their lesson covered to make time for the conversation, but not having it because of their commitments outside of school potential means that they will not get the support needed.
  2. The location of the conversation is also significant. Due to potential safeguarding issues, schools rarely have offices with blinds or privacy screens, so making sure that there is a designated area for staff to use for private conversations is really important. If someone is struggling with their mental health, they need to feel that there is a safe undisturbed place available for them to talk about their feelings. Knowing there is somewhere in school for this to happen could be the difference between them having the conversation or not. It could be that you suggest a ‘walk and talk’ outside of the school grounds if this suits your colleague, and the informal nature of it may feel less intense if they are experiencing anxiety.
  3. Being genuinely present and showing empathy are the key aspects of a meaningful conversation about mental health. Making sure that your phone is off or in silent mode and that you are prepared to sit and listen to potentially upsetting or worrying things is so important. Often, as teachers, we are expected to be able to ‘fix’ problems for people as part of our roles, but conversations about mental health are not like this. It is so powerful to be able to truly listen to another human being and sit with their discomfort for a while, instead of offering solutions at time when they may not have the capacity to hear them or be able to act on them. It is a good idea to use active listening strategies such as summarising back to them what they have said to you to check for misunderstanding and asking open questions to give them opportunities to clarify what they are telling you.

 

What are ‘reasonable adjustments’ and how can they be used to support colleagues?

The Equality Act 2010 is the first piece of workplace legislation that gave mental health the same status as physical health in terms of the support that must be offered to colleagues. There must be ‘reasonable adjustments’ made to support colleagues to ensure that they have the capacity to recover. These are typically short-term strategies and may include, for example, flexible working at the start of periods of medication in case of any side-effects or allowing a colleague to have counselling sessions during the school day if these are the first available appointments. NHS mental health services are being stretched and people using their counselling services may not have a choice about the appointment times they are offered. It would also be reasonable not to expect them to return to work after a counselling session if they feel unable to. Counselling may raise upsetting topics and the ability to return to teach a class afterwards may not be possible and could limit the benefits of the sessions themselves. An additional reasonable adjustment could be to extend deadlines. The amount of brain power that is used when someone is feeling anxious or depressed can mean that simple things can take longer and there needs to be some consideration of this. Workload-heavy practices such as marking mock exams or report writing could be too much for a colleague to complete on time if they are using most of their energy to recover.

 

Mental health support services

Making staff aware of your school’s specific employee assistance programme is important so that colleagues do not have to struggle to find the information they need if they are feeling anxious or depressed. There are also a range of external support services they could be directed to such as the Education Support 24/7 helpline, the Samaritans or the mental health charity Mind, which has some excellent resources and case studies. Having an area in your staff room available for mental health information or a credit-card sized information card in each pigeon hole could be an option. Talking about these support services could be part of a staff meeting and a follow-up email should be used for all staff to make sure that any absentees have that information readily available.

 

Conclusion

As a result of the pandemic impacting all of our lives in an unimaginable and unpredictable way, many teachers have struggled with their mental health for the first time, or teachers who had previously had periods of mental ill health have found themselves being ‘triggered’ by the traumatic nature of the pandemic. According to the Teacher Wellbeing Index (2021), 54 per cent of education professionals who were surveyed wanted to leave the profession as a result of the pressures on their mental health and wellbeing and some of this can be prevented. The government-funded senior mental health lead training will hopefully raise the profile of mental health in schools, and this should include staff mental health as one aspect of a whole-school approach. A culture of genuine support and care needs to be developed in schools so that staff who are struggling do not feel ashamed or judged when they ask for help, and are clear about the reasonable adjustments they could be entitled to as part of their recovery.

Teachers are having to ensure that children in their classrooms achieve and develop while helping to prepare them for an unknown future. If they do not have a workplace that supports good mental health gives them opportunities to talk about their feelings, then periods of mental ill health may continue for longer than necessary (McCallum, 2021; Sayer, 2020). Knowing your colleagues well and checking in with them at a time/space where they can be honest is vital in encouraging a culture of honesty and support around mental health. Conversations about mental health can feel hard and awkward, but if schools are prepared to train their staff about how to have them in an empathetic way, then this can change the culture of a school significantly and ensure that the best possible support is offered.

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