Strategies to support good staff mental health

Written by: Mandy Gallagher | Published:
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Can schools do more to tackle the rise of stress-related illnesses among their staff? Mandy Gallagher suggests some strategies that could help

Mix constant change with a heavy workload and lots of high-stakes accountability and it is no wonder that for some school leaders and their teams the result can be stress, anxiety and depression.

The good thing is that there is a growing national focus on raising awareness of mental health across all walks of life and in all professions, together with a drive for more acceptance of these issues as “real” with definite consequences for physical health.

There are signs of this greater awareness of the mental health of staff in our schools but there is still some way to go.

A 2014 survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers suggested that 38 per cent of school and college staff had seen a rise in mental health issues among colleagues over the previous two years, while 55 per cent said that their job had a negative impact on their mental health.

The survey also found that 68 per cent of those dealing with a mental health problem had decided to keep it a secret from their managers, compared with 38 per cent of those who kept a physical health issue to themselves.

While our main concern has always got to be for the effect that mental health illnesses can have on the lives of our colleagues and their families, we should also be acutely aware of the role staff wellbeing plays in the success of schools.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. It is a helpful definition that underlines just how important good wellbeing is if teachers and leaders are to give their best to pupils.

Research by Birkbeck College in partnership with Worklife Support in 2007 demonstrated a strong positive link between staff wellbeing and SATs results in primary schools. It also suggested a significant link between wellbeing and good key stage 4 results, as well as the progress made by pupils between key stages 2 and 4. The research authors concluded that if school performance was to be improved, attention needed to be paid to teacher wellbeing.

I speak to many heads, senior leaders and business managers who experience a surge of stress-related illnesses in their schools. The reasons given for these illnesses include long hours, with workload and constant changes in education policies getting a lot of the blame.

Stress awareness sessions can help staff become aware of the signs of stress in the workplace and within their home life. Ideally, these would be offered to your staff before stress becomes an issue, so staff know how to cope with acknowledging in that first instance that they are becoming unwell.

However, stress-awareness plays just one part in the battle against stress-related illnesses in our schools. There needs to be a deeper emphasis in schools on the wellbeing of staff so that we can avoid getting to the situation where the signs of stress-related illnesses are too often being missed and developing to a point where they lead to sickness and long-term absence.

For leaders, being aware of the pressures your staff are under and getting them involved in a plan to create a culture of wellbeing can be one way of reducing the risk of mental health issues. There are several ways of doing this, including:

  • Give a senior leadership team member responsibility for championing staff wellbeing and make sure colleagues know that they can discuss their concerns in confidence – and are aware of the support available to them.
  • Provide regular reports on wellbeing to school governors.
  • Track staff wellbeing through regular questionnaires.
  • Set up a wellbeing committee. And don’t micro-manage it.
  • Invest in interventions such as health screening and insurance – and build it into the school development plan.
  • Give your team CPD and personal development that nurtures their skills and passions and helps them to make a full contribution to school development.
  • Celebrate the success of individuals and the team.
  • Consider short-term flexible working arrangements where appropriate.

Teachers and leaders are under pressure – it is part and parcel of working in one of the most important and demanding professions. But those pressures only create mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression among staff if they are allowed to take control.
Developing a culture that promotes wellbeing is one approach. Being aware of the early signs of mental health issues and knowing when to intervene and seek help is another.SecEd

Further information

  • A copy of the School Advisory Service’s report, Addressing Stress; Ensuring Wellbeing (November 2015) is available at http://bit.ly/235zEue
  • Mental health charity Mind has lots of useful advice and resources on its website at www.mind.org.uk


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