The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

Supporting teacher mental health: strategies for senior leaders

How can senior leaders support their colleagues' mental health? John Viner shares four strategies to promote positive wellbeing amongst staff.

As discussed in my previous blog post, wellbeing in schools is coming under increased scrutiny. Unfortunately, too often school leaders are so busy focussing on supporting the mental health of pupils, they forget to protect the wellbeing of staff. 

Of course, the mental health of our young people is vital, however this piece is about the mental health of our teachers, leaders and all other adults who work in schools.

Recognising signs of stress

Teachers are great at coping.

We come to work when we’re unwell, keep going when we're overtired and say we are putting our students first. It’s always been something that happens in schools.

According to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018, leaders are among the worst (or is it best?) at hiding the stress they're experiencing. Let’s lay one myth – admitting you're stressed is not a sign of weakness.

The Health and Safety Executive is clear: employers must assess the risks of work-related stress in their workplace and take action to protect employees. Signs of stress might include: 

  • mood swings
  • being withdrawn
  • loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • increased emotional reactions – being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.

Signs of a stressed workforce might be seen in:

  • arguments
  • higher staff turnover
  • more reports of stress
  • more sickness absence
  • decreased performance
  • more complaints and grievances.

1. Create a more open culture

School leaders frequently feel trapped between the personal needs of their staff and the high levels of accountability to agencies such as Ofsted.

One of the reasons I gave up inspecting for Ofsted was the suicide of the third primary headteacher – what on earth are we doing to ourselves and our colleagues? We cannot ignore this stuff.

A start would be talking about stress openly, to understand that it’s okay. School leaders have a huge responsibility here.

School leaders are so busy focussing on supporting the mental health of pupils, they forget to protect the wellbeing of staff. 

So this is a plea for more openness, a school where it’s okay to talk about how we feel and when we need help. To school leaders the message is, although standards and progress are important, it’s the staff that secure them and they need to come first.

A slightly more generous Ofsted inspection framework takes the fine focus off outcomes and we need to grab the opportunities this brings for developing mentally healthy staff.

2. Tackle workload

It is not always easy to reduce colleagues’ workload – and we teachers usually do more work than we need to anyway. Typical research suggests that UK teachers work an average of 54 hours per week, with around 20% of this happening at home.

Changing this culture will take time but, if we can help each other to limit our working hours and take time out for living, it will slowly make a difference.

Consider the nature of the work. Does it make the boat go faster, or is it admin for the sake of it? If you think you can do without it, then do without it and see. 

3. Invest in mental health first aid

Much of this is about watching out for each other.

In schools that are taking staff wellbeing seriously some senior leaders, as well as those with a wellbeing brief, are being trained as mental health first aiders. The MHFA course is aimed at supporting adults so, while we have a DfE directive to safeguard the mental health of our students, why not make sure that help is available for adults too?

As education professionals we are used to supervision in the form of performance management but, for some colleagues, there may be a strong case for offering ‘clinical supervision’.

According to the Care Quality Commission:

'The purpose of clinical supervision is to provide a safe and confidential environment for staff to reflect on and discuss their work and their personal and professional responses to their work. The focus is on supporting staff in their personal and professional development and in reflecting on their practice.'

The CQC notes that, all staff who care for people with a learning disability should have access to appropriate support, including clinical supervision. This will include many colleagues working in schools including the senior leadership team.

This requires investment – you don’t get proper supervision free – but it could be the make or break. 

4. Make staff feel appreciated

Nothing works better to build a team, contribute to workplace happiness and reduce stress than a bit of simple thanks and recognition.

One of my ITT trainees was working in a London school when the headteacher said, ‘what are you doing now, Sally? Have you got time to have a drink with the staff?’ 

She followed him into the hall where cakes and drinks were laid out. He handed her a glass of bubbles. “What’s the special occasion?” she asked.

“No special occasion,” the head replied, “This is just saying thank you to my wonderful staff, we do this from time to time.”

Although standards and progress are important, it’s the staff that secure them and they need to come first

What did that cost? £100 or so? And what was the benefit?

Andy Buck speaks of ‘discretionary effort' – going the extra mile, so to speak. No wonder at this school, discretionary effort is a characteristic of this happy, hard-working – and valued – staff.

Your challenge

Think of three quick wins that you can put into place before the end of term to show your team how much they are valued. Then go and do it – it can only have a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. And therefore on the performance of your school.

Further reading

  • Take a look at the Teacher Wellbeing Index to read more about the impact current pressures can have on education professionals.

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