Staff wellbeing: Conversations about mental health...

Written by: Amy Sayer | Published:
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This is a well written piece with lots of excellent advice. It makes the assumption that the ...

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Opening up about mental health can be daunting and can make a person feel vulnerable. Amy Sayer advises on how to handle these conversations to ensure the best outcomes

Staff working in schools are under increasing amounts of pressure and their mental health can suffer as a result. Cuts to funding mean that class sizes are getting bigger, fewer support staff are employed, and the to-do lists are ever-increasing.

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” – missing lunch with a colleague because you are copying resources for your lesson, missing a swim before school due to an extra meeting, losing sleep because you are worrying about a child protection situation that you have dealt with during the day.

Leaders need to invest in their colleagues and be aware of how these bad habits have a cumulative effect on staff mental health. They may not cause any problems at first, but teachers are creatures of habit and bad ones can develop due our innately kind and selfless personalities.

The signs and symptoms to look out for in colleagues can be both physical and mental. If someone is struggling with anxiety or depression they may complain of constant tiredness, headaches and stomach issues. They may also be suffering from regular colds as their immune system can become compromised by the amount of stress hormones in their body.

They may have noticeable weight gain or loss from stress-eating or under-eating. Other behavioural changes such as missing deadlines, snapping at colleagues and being resistant to change can all be signs that a conversation about mental health may need to happen.

There are a myriad of statistics available which show the amount of teachers having to leave the profession due to their school not understanding or supporting their mental ill health.

The Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 reported that 76 per cent of education professionals experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work, compared to 60 per cent of UK employees. Furthermore, 57 per cent have considered leaving the profession in the last two years due to health pressures and 47 per cent have experienced depression, anxiety or panic attacks due to their work.

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.

I have been teaching for 12 years and during this time I have come across some truly horrific stories about conversations that have been had with colleagues about their mental health.

Opening up about mental health challenges can be daunting and can make a person feel extremely vulnerable. This is why the conversation about it must be well-considered and be carried out in a particular way.

What not to say (nor do)...

  • Do not have a conversation in the staffroom where others are present.
  • Do not try to have the conversation first thing in the morning as they come through the door and they are trying to wake up.
  • Do not interrupt or try to put words into their mouth.
  • Do not approach them to have an initial conversation about mental health five minutes before they are due to teach a lesson.
  • Do not use your phone to check emails while having the conversation.
  • Do not fidget uncomfortably and rush the conversation.
  • Do not try to squeeze the conversation into a 10-minute window between other meetings.
  • Do not check your watch repeatedly during the meeting.
  • Do not take responsibilities away from a staff member without consultation.
  • Do not take classes away from a staff member without consultation.
  • Do not say things like “everyone feels sad sometimes”, “everyone gets stressed”, “other jobs have longer hours and more stress”, or “you’ll get used to the pressure eventually”.
  • Do not talk about the mental health of colleagues in a flippant or dismissive way.
  • Do not treat mental health less seriously than physical health (the two are often linked).
  • Do not tell them to “think positively”.
  • Do not tell them to take up yoga or mindfulness.

Starting a conversation

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has produced some excellence guidance for line managers to explain which phrases could be useful to open-up a dialogue (MHFA England, 2016).

I have summarised the document and delivered it to staff in my school as part of a CPD session on staff mental health. Many more conversations about mental health are now happening in my school and support has been put into place for a range of colleagues, which has enabled them to stay in the classroom and do the job they love in a way that helps them to cope.

The guidance emphasises “non-judgemental listening”, which means hearing and understanding exactly what is being said and allowing the person to speak freely and comfortably without feeling judged. This requires three attributes: acceptance, genuineness and empathy. It recommends a combination of verbal and non-verbal skills:

  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Pay attention.
  • Ask appropriate questions to make sure you are both clear about what is being said.
  • Listen to the words and the tone of voice and observe the body language.
  • Check you understand what the person is saying by restating it.
  • Summarise facts and feelings.
  • Use minimal prompts (mmm, ah, or I see) to keep the conversation moving.
  • Do not worry about pauses or silences, as the person may be simply thinking or temporarily lost for words.
  • Avoid the temptation to fill the silences as you may break their train of thought or the rapport between you.
  • Keep appropriate eye contact (do not stare or avoid their eyes).
  • Maintain an open body position.
  • Sit down even if the other person is standing, to make you seem less threatening.
  • Try not to sit directly opposite the other person, which can seem confrontational.

Other considerations

Many of these initial conversations will happen with an emotional colleague. The British “stiff upper lip” culture means that people can find emotional colleagues hard to cope with. This is not an excuse. If a member of staff is opening up about their feelings and difficulties (and it may even be the first time they have done this with anyone) they will need to feel that you are able to hear this information, listen actively and allow them to “sit” with them.

Some people in schools still unfortunately think that offering them a tissue and telling them that “things will get better” is supportive. People are crying because they cannot cope, not because they want token sympathy and a patronising comment.

If a colleague has come to you in an emotional state due to poor mental health, the first thing you will need to do is try to stay calm yourself. You may be feeling tired, stressed, or anxious yourself, but it is important that you show you genuinely care and want to listen to them.

Reassure them that it is okay to be upset and that you are listening. In fact, the process of listening may provide an important space for both you and the colleague to gain insight into the problem and consider how to move forwards.

Ask them if they would like you to contact anyone or if they would like someone to be with them. Another colleague who is trusted and knows about their personal lives may be able to give more information which could lead to better support being put in place. It is important to give them an appropriate space where they can express emotion freely and compose themselves in privacy.

Private spaces or offices are often limited due to the social nature of schools, but having somewhere private and located so that the person can leave the building without walking past lots of other people is the ideal.

Alternatively, you might suggest that you both leave the building for a short time and have a hot drink or a short walk to give them time to collect themselves. They may choose to go on their own, but it is advisable to accompany them – or have someone else of their choosing to accompany them – if they are still very distressed.

It is important to respect their wishes and allow them to regain some control over a potentially overwhelming situation. Once they have recovered sufficiently, they may want to carry on working. Between you, you will need to decide if this is an option.

Remember: putting on a “brave” face in front of 30 hormonal teenagers may not be an option and could end up causing more damage.
Alternatively, they might want to take a break or even go home. They might feel embarrassed at breaking down, so it is a good idea to explain that you value them and want to support their recovery.

It could be useful to suggest that they make an appointment with their GP to discuss their feelings further and consider potential medication or counselling services they could offer. However, there is likely to be a lengthy waiting list as NHS resources are stretched.

Our academy chain includes a phone counselling service as part of the staff wellbeing offer. This service can give staff an assessment quickly and provide up to six phone counselling sessions for free. This time-limited solution may be enough to identify the core issues and help the person to decide how they can eliminate some of the factors which have contributed to their poor mental health. Alternatively, Education Support provides a 24-hour counselling support service for all staff working in schools.

Ultimately, it is important to realise that the school has an obligation to signpost and support their staff, but it is not their role to “fix” their mental health issues.


Working in schools is physically and emotionally demanding whatever your role. There will always be barriers in the way to prevent you prioritising self-care routines.

The parents’ evenings, the report-writing, the new exam specifications, the marking, and the daily emotional stresses of teenage lives all take time away from things that replenish and revitalise staff mental health.

A school that provides all staff with training to have conversations about mental health will be somewhere that allows them to be at their best.

Allowing someone the time and space to be honest about their struggles is one of the kindest actions that another person can take. There is no reason why this cannot be done in every school.

  • 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. Her first book will be out in January 2021 and will be about supporting staff mental health in schools.

Further information & resources

This is a well written piece with lots of excellent advice.

It makes the assumption that the person suffering would be in a depressed mood if the member of staff is bipolar then they could be in an elated phase that will have equal detriment on their ability to fulfil their own expectations and professional duties.

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