Teacher wellbeing: A shared definition

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Julian Stanley, CEO, Education Support Partnership

Teachers are people, not just employees. Fail to consider the human and personal aspect, and any definition of staff wellbeing will fall short of the reality, says Julian Stanley

School leaders share a widespread appreciation of the need to make staff wellbeing a priority, but a lack of clarity and consistency about what it actually means risks the urgent, lasting progress we need.

Last year with 3,750 teachers signed off on long-term sick leave due to stress, the Health and Safety Executive moved teaching to number four in the list of the UK’s most stressful jobs.

This was backed up by Education Support Partnership’s latest Teacher Wellbeing Index, which reported rising levels of anxiety, depression and irritability in the profession.

It may not be a challenge unique to education but, as school leaders are acutely aware, the recruitment and retention crisis means clear, shared thinking and action have never been more important.

Successive governments have often used the phrase “staff wellbeing” interchangeably with the latest prominent issue within education. It is encouraging that there appears to have been a recent shift in the Department for Education’s (DfE) interpretation and appreciation of the term. The DfE’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, was published on Monday (January 28). Chapter one in particular discusses creating “the right climate for leaders to establish supportive school cultures” (see SecEd's report for more details). We shall see what impact this has.

We regularly hear of many positive initiatives introduced by school leaders. Often small ideas that can make a difference – from yoga to staffroom fruit bowls to gym subscriptions. These are all commendable actions reflecting leaders’ genuine commitments to wellbeing, but they do not always address more fundamental cultural factors which, if addressed could be more impactful.

Analysis of our surveys in schools, conducted across England over the past seven years, indicates that the key influences on wellbeing include: leadership, line management, relationships with colleagues, control over workload, student behaviour, and respect. The schools and individuals we work with consistently show these to be the greatest causes of work-related stress.

Senior leaders need additional support to make this happen. With the right interventions in these areas lasting improvements can be made.

The new Ofsted Inspection Framework provides a potentially transformative opportunity to consider how we measure staff wellbeing in schools. Get it right and we can ensure staff feel listened to, engaged and respected.

Change at a structural and individual school level is what’s needed but we must not ignore that wellbeing is the result of the interaction between professional and personal circumstances. The belief that staff can simply flick a switch when passing through the school gates is not realistic.

Of the 8,600 cases that our telephone counsellors managed last year on our emotional support helpline, a significant number related to personal issues that had affected an individual’s work. The Employee Assistance Programme we run is used three times more by education staff than the UK-wide average, extending to specialist support for relationship breakdown, bereavement or infertility.

Teachers are people, not just employees. If we fail to consider the human and personal aspect within our definitions of staff wellbeing, then we will fall short of the reality.

We must therefore agree as a sector that wellbeing is not just about happiness. It extends to feeling challenged, having a sense of purpose, feeling a sense of achievement and contribution.

Working in education should help fulfil all these, especially as they’re the key reasons why most enter this great profession. Yet far too often the pressures of the role and the lack of support prevent a dedicated, talented and committed generation of educators from feeling good enough, and this was a key theme to emerge from the open responses within the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index.

Wellbeing is all about balance. An individual’s ability and resilience to balance the psychological, social and physical resources they possess against the challenges they come up against. This balancing act depends on a range of external factors. However we shouldn’t lose sight that an individual’s emotional intelligence, resilience and psychological state are all things that can, and should, be managed and developed. That’s why we’re calling for a greater focus on these within initial teacher training and CPD.

For positive wellbeing in schools we need the formation of a sector-wide strategy informed by research and evidence which maps out the minimum changes needed to happen at a structural, environmental and individual level.

The scale of the challenge should not be underestimated, but I’m feeling extremely positive. Last year the appetite for change across the sector was at the highest level I’ve seen since I started this role over a decade ago. There’s a realisation that now is the time to act and, with a concerted effort at every level, this can be achieved. First though we need a definition of wellbeing upon which we can all agree.

  • Julian Stanley is the out-going CEO of the Education Support Partnership.

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