Creating a mentally healthy school so your staff can thrive

Written by: Emma Mamo | Published:
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Creating mentally healthy schools benefits staff and pupils. Emma Mamo from the charity Mind offers her advice both to schools themselves and to staff who are struggling with a mental health problem

Data obtained earlier this year by the Liberal Democrats under Freedom of Information highlighted high levels of stress-related sickness absence among teachers in England. The figures show that there were 3,750 teachers in England on long-term sick leave (one month or more) for stress and mental health reasons in 2016/17, up five per cent on the previous year.

The high prevalence of stress and poor mental health in the education sector is hugely concerning, but unfortunately this didn’t come as a surprise to us at Mind, as it is something we hear a lot.

Among the teaching profession, frequently cited causes of poor mental health at work that we hear anecdotally include long working hours, low pay, regular inspections and lack of interaction with colleagues. The job of a teacher is demanding in nature, so it is no surprise that some staff are burning out and needing time off as a result.

But the onus should be on employers taking a “whole-school” approach to support their staff through difficult times, so that they can come into work at their best, and in turn get the best outcomes for their pupils.

When staff do need to take time off due to stress or mental health problems, they should be treated exactly the same as those who take sick leave for a physical health problem. Employers also need to be aware of their duty under the Equality Act to provide reasonable adjustments for any employee who discloses a disability, which can include a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, long-term affect on normal day-to-day activities.

Mind works with employers of all sizes and across sectors, advising them on how to create mentally healthy workplaces. Our advice is based on three “prongs”:

  • Tackling the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health at work.
  • Promoting wellbeing for all staff.
  • Supporting employees who are experiencing mental health problems.

Employers – including schools – are increasingly recognising the importance of mental health at work. After all, it is not just about being a responsible employer, but there’s a business case too, as those that do invest in workplace wellbeing see reduced sickness absence and improved staff morale and productivity. As well as their own mental health, teaching staff have a pastoral role to play in supporting the wellbeing of their pupils.

Because everyone’s experience of mental health problems varies, as does people’s openness when it comes to talking about wellbeing, it can be a hard topic to broach. Lots of people fear saying the wrong thing, and then don’t say anything at all. But if you’re worried about a colleague, do talk to them. There are a few general “rules of thumb”.

Encourage them to talk

Start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know that they can talk to you if they need to. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so focus on the person, not the problem. Staying silent is one of the worst things people can do and opening up and talking about how they are feeling can in turn help them feel more relaxed about chatting to their manager. Even if they don’t want to speak about it at that time, you’ve still let them know you care, and that you are there for them when the time is right.

Encourage them to seek support

If a co-worker feels like their workload is spiralling out of control, encourage them to discuss it with their manager or supervisor. If their manager doesn’t create the space for them to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue.

It depends on the relationship they have with their manager, but if they have a good relationship and trust them, then they could meet them on a one-to-one basis to discuss what’s going on. Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if they didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step. You could also signpost to sources of support, including Mind’s website and infoline.

Avoid making assumptions

Don’t try to guess what symptoms someone might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job or manage their studies – many people are able to manage their condition and perform to a high standard.

Respect confidentiality

Remember that mental health information is confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively affect someone’s mental health.

A focus on wellbeing

Teaching can be rather lonely so offering staff the opportunity to regularly interact with each other and share problems and ideas can be really helpful. Employers are increasingly providing wellbeing initiatives to their staff, such as subsidised gym membership and Employee Assistance Programmes (confidential 24-hour phone support). While some come with a cost attached, employers who put in place these measures are likely to save money in the long run through increased staff engagement and productivity.

Attitudes beginning to change?

Deciding whether or not to tell your employer and colleagues if you are experiencing a mental health problem can be daunting. Some people fear being deemed not fit to practise, but forward-thinking employers recognise the benefits of recruiting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce, including people who might be experiencing a mental health problem.

It is important for all employers to create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about stress and mental health at work and to encourage a clear work/life balance as much as possible.

A recent independent report commissioned by the government found that poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99 billon every year, with up to £42 billon as a direct cost to employers. We know that there’s a huge human cost related to mental health, but figures from the report –

Thriving at Work – highlight the business case for addressing mental health in the workplace, with proactive employers also reaping the rewards of a more motivated, healthy workforce.

The Thriving at Work review also found that people with long-term mental health problems were leaving jobs at twice the rate of colleagues who don’t have mental health problems. Whether this was because they felt unsupported by their employer or unable to access suitable treatment, the human and economic cost cannot be ignored. Promoting good mental health at work is also a key part of being a responsible employer that values the contribution of their employees.

Unfortunately we know that people are still sometimes treated differently due to their mental health. A recent YouGov poll, for Business in the Community, found that 15 per cent of people who disclosed that they were experiencing a mental health problem at work said they faced dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion. It is clear there is a long way to go, but things are improving. It is more and more common to find workplaces where people feel able to talk about their wellbeing and mental health.

As attitudes begin to change, more companies and organisations are asking the right questions and taking the right steps to start the conversation with their employees. We can see the change – nearly 700 employers have signed the Time to Change organisational pledge, demonstrating their commitment to promoting staff wellbeing.

Employer attitudes can be a huge barrier to people with mental health problems re-entering the workplace. Forward-thinking employers recognise the benefits of recruiting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce, including people who might be experiencing a mental health problem.
Mind is helping such trailblazing companies to make these changes through our Workplace Wellbeing Index, which is a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff.

In our inaugural year last year, we saw a range of organisations, including Ark Conway Primary Academy and Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, take part because they are committed to improving mental health in the workplace.

In addition to benchmarking through processes like the Index, there are lots of other practical measures employers can put in place to promote staff wellbeing, some of which are simple and free.

Jointly drawn up by managers and staff, a Wellness Action Plan (WAP) is a useful tool as it helps identify what helps someone stay well at work, what might trigger poor mental health, and how best to support them. Available free from Mind’s website, these person-centred plans can facilitate constructive, supportive conversations about mental health.

  • Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing for mental health charity MIND.

Further information

  • For the resources and support mentioned in this article, as well as free advice and information on mental health at work for employers and staff, visit www.mind.org.uk/work
  • Thriving at Work: A review of mental health and employers, Department for Work and Pensions, Department of Health and Social Care, October 2017: http://bit.ly/2HWtUQY
  • Mental Health in Schools and Colleges, Department for Education advice, August 2017: http://bit.ly/2xhnKIR


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