Staff wellbeing: More than just a policy

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Image: iStock

A school-wide policy on protecting staff wellbeing and mental health is essential, but it must not stop there – definitive action is required, says Julian Stanley

Just over a year ago, the prime minister, in a speech at the Charity Commission’s annual meeting, described mental health as “one of the greatest social challenges of our time”.

In this speech, schools and colleges were seen as a crucial part of a wider approach to promoting positive mental health and wellbeing as well as preventing mental illness in children and young people.

Many of your schools I’m sure are working extremely hard to help prevention of problems and make promotion of wellbeing a priority.

Research commissioned by the Department for Education to understand what schools, colleges and other educational institutions in England currently do to promote positive mental health and wellbeing among pupils, identified that an overwhelming 92 per cent reported having an “ethos or environment that promoted mutual care and concern” (DfE, August 2017).

The majority (64 per cent) felt that the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing was integrated into the whole school day. Qualitative feedback included participants’ describing the embedding of discussion around mental health across the curriculum, including but not limited to PSHE lessons or spiritual, moral, social and cultural development activities.

But while the need for an embedded, positive culture is essential to any success in supporting students’ wellbeing, this is in direct contrast to the experience of many of their teachers.

Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Liberal Democrats at the start of the year showed a five per cent increase on the year before in staff spending more than a month off work for “stress and mental health issues”.

So many education staff we speak to and support are struggling to nurture their own mental health and wellbeing under pressure, and this is taking its toll in the classroom. In a study published recently by the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health at Leeds Beckett University, three-quarters of 775 teachers surveyed said that they thought poor teacher mental health was having an impact on pupil progress.

In our most recent major report, The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Education Professionals in the UK, almost three quarters (72 per cent) of 1,250 people working in the profession told us they did not feel that they receive sufficient guidance about their health and wellbeing at work.

While many reported that their schools or colleges have a policy which is implemented, 30 per cent said they feel that the policy in their schools is not properly implemented, with secondary schools being a particular concern.

A key way for schools to bring these policies to life, something we continue to campaign extensively on, is to ensure it becomes so much more than a document or aspiration. But how can this feel possible when there are complex, external pressures and rapid change over which leaders have little control?

We know workload is a major issue and one which is not necessarily completely within a school leader’s influence. There is no “one-size-fits-all”, but the most important first step is for leadership teams to focus on identifying the priorities and hence set the tone of the school.

Giving staff space to talk is also essential, as is a live mental health policy that is regularly reviewed, referred to and updated. These are critically important and help teams and individuals find ways to identify and manage workplace stress and strains.
In his conclusion to his book Mark, Plan, Teach, Ross Morrison McGill, otherwise known on social media as @teachertoolkit, describes how “sticky-plaster wellbeing” won’t cut to the heart of the issue.

He writes: “The crux of the matter is that every teacher must be able to mark, plan and teach with simplicity and passion. We must give our teachers the space to be able to do these things well and be in front of their students but also to reflect and meet regularly with colleagues to discuss their students, their lessons and their classroom ideas.”

When we work with schools and colleges who have taken the first step to address staff wellbeing, we observe that just having the discussion about the challenges faced by staff professionally and personally can be a great step towards simple changes that can make a significant, positive difference to many – a start to creating a culture where teachers feel their work is valued and success celebrated.

School governors and others must ensure that school leaders are accountable for developing a planned approach and delivery. Get the framework right for your team and it can make a real, tangible difference to positive mental health, paying dividends in relation to wellbeing, recruitment and retention. 

  • Julian Stanley is the CEO of the Education Support Partnership.

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