Hygge: Protecting your staff’s wellbeing

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We are all rightly concerned with the mental health and wellbeing of our pupils – but what about the staff? John Dabell discusses why staff wellbeing should be top of your agenda and offers some quick ideas

Denmark is considered to be the happiest nation on Earth and the reason for that is because of “hygge”. This was originally a Norwegian word meaning wellbeing, but the Danes turned hygge into an entire attitude that embodies a fulfilled life imbued with connectedness, cosiness, family, simplicity, fellowship and hope. It is about positive vibes, making an effort, appreciating life and making enjoyment.

Hygge isn’t something that is unique to Denmark but the Danes seem to have it in their DNA. If they could export it then we would all be happy. But achieving hygge is possible wherever you are, as long as you buy in to the importance of wellbeing – and who doesn’t? Increasingly, corporate organisations talk a lot about the wellbeing of their staff and have initiatives galore for keeping staff in a state of hygge because they know happy staff are better than sick staff. Uncared for and burnt out staff are ticking time bombs.

Does your school have hygge? I am guessing not for everyone. When it comes to looking after the pupils, schools bend over backwards to ensure policies, procedures and strategies are in place to achieve physical and mental wellbeing.

Why? Simple, pupils are vulnerable by definition of being children and schools have a duty to promote their wellbeing and prepare them for adult life. Pupils with better health and wellbeing are also likely to achieve better academically.
It is not rocket science to know that the culture, ethos and environment of a school influence the health and wellbeing of pupils and their readiness to learn.

But what about staff? What about their wellbeing and hygge? Exactly the same principles apply to staff as they do to pupils. Teachers are notorious for having a poor work/life balance as their days are full of worry and hurry, but do we get the same service as pupils? That very much depends on where you work but it certainly shouldn’t be a luxury or seen as an option – staff wellbeing is a must.

I have visited a fair few schools and staffrooms over the years and the ones with hygge stand out a mile. The staff seem happier, calmer, stronger and work as a team. This reflects in the pupils’ attitudes too. I have also seen the opposite in schools where management has one finger on the self-destruct button and staff wellbeing isn’t on the radar.

Positive relationships between teachers and pupils and between pupils are critical in promoting pupil wellbeing because it promotes a sense of belonging or school hygge. But the same goes for staff too. Relationships between all staff have to be healthy. This has to be a whole-school approach.

Do your staff have a growth mindset? Do you have a staff wellbeing champion in school? Do you have strategies in place to help staff manage stress? Maybe, maybe not, but for some schools, support for staff amounts to a few leaflets on healthy eating, stopping smoking and a suicide helpline. We must remember that – accordingly to various recent surveys – more than
80 per cent of teachers report experiencing stress, anxiety and depression at work and more than 50 per cent are feeling “severely” stressed.

In a realistic whole-school approach, wellbeing and mental health has to be everyone’s business, with the sincere involvement of all staff, pupils, governors, parents, the community and outside agencies. Sometimes approaches to wellbeing on a whole-school level have been too wishy-washy to be effective.

Where wellbeing initiatives work best they are well-designed, carefully thought through and developed incrementally with realistic expectations. Specific interventions have to be implemented with precision and commitment, with proper leadership, staff training, close observance to guidelines and careful assessment and monitoring.

Pupil behaviours, rising expectations, targets and inspections are constant hits that teachers have to absorb, but you can help staff to build a greater sense of control and develop stronger resilience. There are lots of approaches, programmes and interventions which can have a positive impact on staff wellbeing, reduced stress, sickness and absence, improved teaching ability and performance.

A wellbeing audit

The protection and fostering of staff wellbeing needs to be embedded in management methods and systems. The first thing to do in order to improve staff wellbeing is to assess and audit their current level of wellbeing, decide where you want to be, and then work out how you are going to get there.

A wellbeing survey will certainly help and providing immediate feedback with a few quick wins means you can get the ball rolling straight away. Any training and development opportunities add value to both the staff and the school. Some quick wins could be, for example:

  • Cut down on meetings. Are they all necessary?
  • Make meetings fun with music and activities.
  • Invest in team-building games, activities and quizzes.
  • Start a staff breakfast club.
  • Make fresh fruit and healthy snacks available in the staffroom.
  • Free tea, coffee and milk.
  • Offering free flu jabs.
  • Promote mindfulness or contemplative practices such as yoga, reiki, meditation, emotional freedom techniques, breathing exercises, stress reduction workshops.
  • Engage in further training in relation to pupils’ social and emotional development.
  • Add a standing item to team meetings where people talk about wellbeing and stress as a group.
  • Lunch and Learn – have a staff member share a skill/activity or invite someone into school to run a class.
  • Provide ideas on how to raise a serious subject in a more accessible or fun way, e.g. Macmillan Coffee Morning, Jeans for Genes, Race for Life, World Mental Health Day.
  • Begin a staff walking club, hold a keep-fit session, start a pilates class.
  • Start a staff choir, music club, book club or any staff interest group.
  • Have planned pampering activities such as massage and reflexology.
  • Have an area where staff can rest and have a power nap.
  • Make time to exercise together, such as walking, cycling and swimming.
  • Empower staff through further training such as first aid, time-management, assertiveness, people-management, leadership development, self-esteem, decision-making, counselling.
  • Appoint a wellbeing committee and have a Wellbeing Charter.
  • Signpost health events and occupational health support via teaching unions.
  • Have employee awards within teams.
  • Hold regular staff meetings outside of school by socialising and sharing time together eating, drinking, bowling, crazy golf, etc.
  • Set up a text messaging system across all staff to improve communication.
  • Employ a qualified HR manager and counsellor.
  • Introduce a mentoring and buddy scheme.
  • Staff health checks and subsidised gym membership.
  • Simply saying thank you!

In the longer term

Beyond these ideas senior leaders must encourage and support a culture of teamwork, collaboration and information-sharing. Conflict can be avoided by treating staff equally and so ensuring fairness. It certainly pays to have regular one-to-one informal meetings in order to identify any issues early so staff can get the support they need. This also certainly helps to normalise conversations about wellbeing and mental health so there is no stigma attached.

You can consider small incentives to increase interest and participation in wellbeing ideas, celebrate successes and keep it fun and creative. You might want to think about partnerships with external resources and organisations – businesses with health-related products and services are often an untapped gold mine, for example.

Then there are individual representatives from other schools who can share strategies and ideas and within the broader community you can utilise expertise such as specialist nurses, community health specialists, occupational health workers and health and fitness centres. Above all, schools need a staff wellbeing policy in place as the school – remember, as an employer schools have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees.

Wellbeing in schools has to start with the staff as they are in the frontline. It is nigh on impossible to promote the emotional, social and physical wellbeing of others if you go home crying, collapse in a heap and open a bottle of wine.

Given the very high demands placed on teachers and senior leadership staff it is little surprise that wellbeing initiatives often don’t take high priority. Yet staff need to feel valued and supported and a positive culture that values everyone and invests in their wellbeing builds the trust and integrity essential to having school hygge.

Maintaining regular, clear lines of communication with all staff ensures open dialogue and helps everyone feel connected and creating an environment to promote wellbeing will allow staff to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and the pupils.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk


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