Wellbeing, in a nutshell, is the point of balance between the pressures and stresses of life and a person’s capacity to deal with them (Dodge et al, 2012). It comprises of three strands: physical, psychological and social. These interwoven strands can’t be neatly separated out and neither can they be broken into handy categories, making the notion of ‘workplace wellbeing’ something of a misnomer (Paterson and Grantham, 2016). It is not a fixed entity either, but something that’s “dynamic and changes over time” (Paterson and Grantham, 2016, 93). During a period when school staff are facing increased pressure and stresses, the point of balance may well have tipped for many.
The expectations teachers have of themselves make the social pressure felt by teachers an additional burden that affects the point of balance. Recent media coverage has a role, but this social pressure doesn’t only come from society ‘at large’. The school community, the children and their families, have expectations of support. In the current climate, with many families bereaved and an atmosphere of anxiety prevalent, school staff will likely find themselves juggling a complex mix of expectations and emotions. At the same time as supporting their community, they must manage their own feelings and personal experiences, whilst maintaining their professionalism (Robinson, S. et al, 2018).
Supporting teacher wellbeing is vital not only for the members of staff, but also their pupils. An increasing body of evidence is emerging to suggest that teacher wellbeing has an impact on both student achievement (Paterson and Grantham, 2016) and student wellbeing (Turner and Theilking, 2019). Whilst more research is needed into the links between teacher wellbeing and student achievement and wellbeing, supporting staff cannot be a bolt on to the culture of the school.
We know that prolonged stress has a damaging physical effect on both the body and the brain, including the hippocampus, which is a key player when it comes to memory. It therefore “may be reasonable to speculate that highly stressed teachers have less access to their knowledge base” (Paterson and Grantham, 2016, 92), which can have an adverse effect on classroom practice.
There has been recent criticism of a deficit model of research that fails to take account of how the job might also positively impact upon wellbeing. Simply put, whilst there are things that have a negative impact, such as The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services..., poor pupil behaviour or ‘difficult’ parents (Ofsted, 2019), other aspects of the job increase a person’s capacity to deal with these pressures meaning that the point of balance is often maintained.
So how can leadership establish and maintain a culture that supports staff wellbeing?
1. Meaningful work
2. Recognition of strengths
3. Positive relationships.
Perceiving their work as important is a key element of teacher wellbeing (Ofsted, 2019). Whilst society’s expectations can add pressure, they also add to that sense that the work is meaningful. Factors such as hope, self-efficacy, optimism and resilience all increase when staff feel that they are contributing to improving the lives of others (Turner and Theilking, 2019). It is well documented now that what a person focuses on determines how they perceive the world (Dodge, 2010), and so taking the opportunity regularly and often to remind teachers of why their work is meaningful is central to a positive wellbeing culture.
- Be clear about the school’s mission and the part that staff play in making a difference to the lives of their students, particularly vulnerable students, or those from low socio-economic households. Give specific examples where appropriate.
- Actively seek and share examples of positive feedback from parents, pupils and the wider community.
- Make explicit connections between the work that teachers are doing and positive outcomes (for example, work being submitted, communication between school and home).
Recognition of strengths
People who use their character strengths at work are also likely to find more meaning in their work (Turner and Theilking, 2019), so this one’s a win-win. It’s not a surprise that staff respond well to having their strengths recognised by leadership (Paterson and Grantham, 2016) but they also enjoy their work more, have more self-esteem and perceive themselves to be less stressed (Turner and Theilking, 2019).
- Ensure that the line management system has a clear process for recognising individual and team strengths, both formally and informally.
- Make sure that team leaders are aware of and utilise effectively, the character strengths of their team.
- Encourage self-awareness of character traits among staff and allow staff members the autonomy and agency to work to their strengths.
Solidarity with team members also increases hope, resilience and optimism at work (Turner and Theilking, 2019). Teachers can have over 1000 interpersonal contacts every day, and as one of the strands of wellbeing is social, it stands to reason that these interactions will have a significant impact. Positive interactions count, not just on an individual level but on an institutional one (think clear channels of communication). To ease stress and feelings of anxiety, it’s important that staff are also able to ‘offload’ their negative thoughts and feelings to other colleagues too (Paterson and Grantham, 2016). Interestingly it’s not just receiving social support that makes for a more engaged and satisfied staff; providing social support has been shown to have the same effect (Turner and Theilking, 2019).
- Go out of your way as a leadership team to have regular, positive interactions with individuals. It sounds straightforward, but in the frenetic pace of a school day it’s all too easy to fall into quick transactional exchanges.
- Promote a positive school ethos through staff meetings by choosing words to reinforce the identity of the staff body as a team and to celebrate the successes of the team.
- Ensure that staff have time to meet in smaller collegial groups, both for collaboration and to ‘offload’.
Whether online or as staff begin returning to school, building in specific blocks of time for collaboration, teamwork and positive collegial interactions will support wellbeing across the school.