Covid-19: Maintaining your focus on staff wellbeing

Written by: Amy Sayer | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Staff wellbeing will have been a high priority as schools reopened fully in September, but we cannot let our focus slip, especially as a second wave looms and changed working practices look like they are here to stay. Amy Sayer offers some tips and reflections

There have been many significant changes to working practices since September and while much talk has been of the impact on student wellbeing, we must also ensure that staff wellbeing is a priority. In this article, I want to share some general wellbeing advice for teachers coping with the challenges we face this term.

Time to talk

First and foremost, we must continue to make the time to talk. We are all working under immense pressure and workload could well be higher than it has been in a long time.

“This can all lead to staff having less time for self-care and protecting their mental health. Bad habits can form very quickly and can lead to staff absence and ‘burn-out’.” I wrote this in SecEd back in early March (Sayer, 2020), before Covid had changed all our lives – but the advice remains relevant.

In that article, which discussed how to talk to colleagues about mental health, I added:

“Conversations about mental health can be uncomfortable and awkward. This is a fact. However, if it is not acknowledged or discussed in your school, it can leave staff feeling isolated, unheard and, even worse, ashamed.”

So, I would urge school leaders to make time for staff to talk and I would urge teachers to keep an eye on colleagues and to look for the tell-tale signs that they may be struggling. See my March article for some advice on starting mental health conversations.

Coping with the unknown

In SecEd’s recent Best Practice Guide (2020) focusing on staff wellbeing post-lockdown and during the full return to school, an article from the teacher wellbeing charity Education Support discussed the challenges of “coping with the unknown”.

It said: “A lack of control over situations or an inability to change them is a key driver of stress. Change and feelings of uncertainty can also trigger anxiety. That is very much the case at present in all our lives and it is important as leaders that we let staff know that these feelings are normal and are to be expected.”

One specific area where I think many teachers may be struggling is with the idea of teaching on the move. For many teachers, life has become much more peripatetic as schools have implemented systems of social bubbles.

The idea is that the bubbles of students remain roughly in one place while teaching staff move from classroom to classroom to deliver lessons. It goes without saying that this aspect of the new normal might prove particularly stressful for some, or may eventually become exhausting for teachers if it continues in the long-term.

We need to find a combination of psychological and practical “survival” techniques to help make things feel more manageable.

On the practical side of things, we are talking about finding a system of coping with the extra hassle of moving all the time. So, considering “air steward” style suitcases with wheels or efficient systems for accessing your resources from different locations – anything to make the dashing between classrooms less stressful.

Other things like ensuring you know where toilets are in unfamiliar areas of the school and any access codes and having an umbrella to hand could be vital, too.

On the psychological side of things, first thing is to remember that by working this way you are helping to keep children and their families safe. You are also ensuring that they have access to the broadest curriculum offer that your school can provide.

Putting children at the heart of all we do in a school setting should reassure you that despite any discomfort you will face, being a “mobile” teacher is the right thing to do. There is also that feeling that everyone is in the same situation and this may will generate a greater empathy and spirit among the staff body.

Elsewhere, to help cope with the burden, consider making time in your timetable to find a friend during the school day. Using your timetabling system, try to allocate time and space when you can see your friends for lunch or a socially distanced morning cup of tea. This familiarity in these times could make a huge difference to your wellbeing.

Also, having to step outside your usual classroom/school area may be a good way to meet new staff members and get a better feel for how the school works as a whole community on a day-to-day basis. Try to focus on these positives.

Exercise, diet and sleep

When it comes to wellbeing, routines and habits are important, as is exercise, diet and sleep. For example, scheduling your exercise for the week or some outside time is just as vital as scheduling your marking or lesson planning. You should schedule in a realistic amount to keep it sustainable based on your actual levels of fitness, rather than your aspiring levels.

Furthermore, planning your meals and snacks should be a non-negotiable part of your weekly routine. Everyone does it in different ways. As many schools will have restricted food options due to Covid safety procedures, this is even more vital.

Not fueling your brain with healthy items and instead opting for a fatty/sugary snack may give you a short-term boost, but will not be good for you in the long term.

Consider how you can prepare healthy snacks as part of your routine and how you can store them so you are not struggling to find a box for carrot sticks at 6am on a cold winter morning. No one needs to see a “hangry” teacher.

And finally, I don’t need to repeat here all the evidence that tells us just how important it is to get a proper night’s sleep. Make this a priority.

On-going support

If you are feeling nervous and anxious during the relentless nature of sanitizing, cleaning and mask/visor wearing, it is important to have someone in school that you can go to who will listen to your concerns.

These feelings are valid and deserve to be heard. None of us have been through a time like this before. We normally have control over our school lives, and have regular opportunities to meet with friends to connect and talk about our worries. However, teachers are having to socially distance from their friends and colleagues for safety and the usual hugs and reassurance are not available.

Not expressing your feelings during this time could lead to poor habits developing, which are not good for mental health. It may start with the extra glass or wine or bar of chocolate, but it could lead to uncontrollable anxiety which will affect your ability to teach well and be well.

The uncertainty of the rest of the school year and spending your energy making your students feel safe and secure can take its toll and it is important that you have the time and space to process your worries and concerns.

The article by Education Support, mentioned above, urges school leaders to “show how you make your own mental health a priority, share how you do this and make it clear that all our mental health has to come first”. I would echo this advice.

However, if your line manager is lacking in emotional intelligence or your school is not providing those opportunities to talk as mentioned above, you may need to reach out to someone else. If you need support from someone outside of school, Education Support offers a free counselling and telephone service (see further information).

  • Amy Sayer is a mental health first-aider and head of religious studies. She been teaching in secondary schools for 12 years and has previously been a mental health lead. Read her previous SecEd articles at Amy’s first book, Supporting Staff Mental Health in Your School, is due out on December 21 from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Visit

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