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

Mel Greenwood

True staff wellbeing

Mel Greenwood challenges the effectiveness of common staff wellbeing activities and advocates for a more personalised approach that includes professional development, flexibility, empathy and active listening. Drawing from personal experiences and conversations with educators, she emphasises the importance of diverse strategies for promoting staff wellbeing.

While staff wellbeing activities are full of good intentions and welcomed by many, I wonder how far a burger, a doughnut, a therapy dog or a massage suffices in supporting staff wellness. Will this support our staff in feeling more prepared, less tired, mentally healthy, happier, more determined, efficacious or more relaxed? In honesty, the answer is probably no. So what could and should true staff wellbeing support look like?

This blog explores ideas from some of the conversations I have had with staff over the last few years and continue to have with friends and colleagues in primary, secondary and further education. As a former leader in a primary school, I have peppered this blog with some of my reflections and lessons that I have learned and internalised.

1. A doughnut is nice but it provides momentary satisfaction

As a comfort eater, I should know this! A sugar rush can provide an energy boost for 10 minutes, but our working day is much longer than that and the academic year is aeons longer still. I am not suggesting sugary treats or pizza days, staff room buffets, etc. should stop because moments like this allow the staff community to get together and enjoy socialising with one another. 

I suggest that this is not enough.

2. Space to become more efficacious in our roles is paramount

Imagine this: in the school CPD calendar, within the school week, within the school day even, we receive time and space to pursue our professional development needs. This could be by having the time to read blogs, watch webinars, observe a colleague or shadow a middle or senior leader in school. I have seen this work well:

  • when senior leaders cover additional PPA sessions for staff
  • when year groups/key stages (depending on the size of the school) hold dropdown, theme or team-building sessions, which allow for release time
  • when visiting speakers and organisations come in to allow for a skeleton staff.

Building additional CPD time requires flexibility and creativity of thinking but the rewards you will reap will be worth it.

Teachers, imagine how supportive this would feel and how creative it would enable you to be. Leaders, imagine how this would provide a diversity of thinking and build capacity within your team. 

3. Equity is key

We need to look at each other as individuals. We need to ensure equitable access to opportunities and resources. Still, we also need to remember that equity is ensuring that everyone has what they need as an individual to thrive.

To ensure that our staff body is thriving, we must individually address everyone to determine if they require additional support or if specific strategies need implementation. Writing reports comes easier for some than others; buddying up for support can be a huge help. It may be that a staff member down the corridor is willing and eager to become more technology-literate but is struggling; putting support in place is imperative here to support wellbeing.

Stop and consider different examples. Think about the staff you work with and how you can show support and responsibility for their wellbeing.

4. Drawing on the experiences of others is integral

I recently read an Optimus blog by John Dabell called Swiss cheese leadership that really resonated. I love the idea that when each piece of cheese overlaps, others fill the gaps. Valuing the diversity of our staff body and drawing on other professionals' experiences and talents is essential to ensure our schools flourish and truly reach their potential. I believe it is only when we draw on the skills, talents and qualities of others that everyone's wellbeing is supported. Knowing that we can rely on one another without judgement means we can build a huge supportive network – a web of connection.

  • Why not complete an audit in your department or phase?
  • What are your individual skills?
  • What do you think your 'holes' are and what support would you welcome?
  • Where could that support come from?

5. Beware of snappy decisions

Snappy decisions that are the same for everyone are not helpful. Leaders, in particular, need to recognise this and make more informed, thoughtful decisions to support the wellbeing and mental health of those around them. Each of us lives a life that others only partially see and we need to remember this when trying to make the best decisions. Your needs may be different from what your neighbouring colleague might need.

Before we move onto the next wellbeing point, stop and reflect – when was the last time you made a snappy decision that negatively affected someone else's wellbeing? Or when did someone make a snappy, ill-informed decision that affected you negatively? Could the outcome have been different if better informed?

6. Flexibility is key

Both teachers and leaders need to recognise that flexibility is imperative. A hard, fast rule that doesn't consider individual circumstances is not advisable or acceptable. I have seen instances where leaders have been super flexible with other non-class-based leaders and yet need to be more flexible regarding class-based staff.

Allowing everyone only to attend one child's play when some people have three children appears to be unfair and inflexible. A rule that says no one can attend a doctor's appointment during the school day is unacceptable. Circumstances are different and we must be open with our staff to ensure that everyone understands what flexibility looks like in the workplace. This is a huge support to everyone's wellbeing.

This also demands that we are flexible with our colleagues. We need to allow each other flexibility and grace. Yes, our students should be at the heart and centre of what we do, but we also have busy and hectic lives. Of course, what supports our wellbeing doesn't always support others, so we must consider fairness. We must remember that in ensuring support for our wellbeing, we support others, too.

7. People need change

One year, we can be on top of our game and other years, it feels like we are barely struggling through. Being emotionally aware and emotionally open benefits everyone. But be warned – we are not all naturally good at this, so we must refer back to the Swiss cheese blog. It is particularly important that as leaders and as more experienced staff, we look out for and gauge the ‘temperature’ of others, looking for when our colleagues around us need extra support.

This also demands that we are open with those that we trust. As we would expect our students to, asking for support when needed will support our wellbeing and ensure we are mentally healthy.

8. We all have busy spots in our lives

Finding out when these busy spots occur in your and your other team members' lives is essential in supporting one another. Why not offer to put up your colleague's display when it is their child's birthday or make a cup of tea for the teacher down the corridor when you can see how bogged down with marking they are? What we reap, we sow and supporting other people's wellbeing is supporting our own, too.

Leaders – remember to look out for your teachers and teachers, don't forget to look out for your leaders. They have busy spots in their lives, too

9. Encourage empathy in teams

A team infused with empathy goes a long way. The biggest and most important lessons I have learned these last few years are listening before speaking and breathing to give myself space to think. This has allowed me to become a more empathetic person.

Someone once told me that I should listen with my head before my heart, but that I don't and never will agree with. I have learned to engage my brain and to think but I have learned that thinking with my heart first often allows me to behave with empathy. Thinking with empathy engages my wellbeing brain and enables me to support those around me better.

How can you engage your wellbeing brain and support those around you to do the same?

10. Prioritise listening

Listening can be hard but must be prioritised. As teacher practitioners and leaders, we love talking, discussing, debating, and challenging. We often find listening more difficult, particularly when we have advice to give or similar experiences to share. Sometimes, in supporting another's wellbeing, listening is all we need to do. We don't always need to be the problem solver – just being there is often enough. If it isn't enough, providing our friends and colleagues the space to ask for help goes a long way.

Remember, if you need wellbeing support and it has not been offered, make sure you ask

By being more reflective as a team, we can hugely support not just our wellbeing but also our colleagues’ and friends’ wellbeing. Being open and honest is a start and enabling everyone to feel efficacious in their role is a must but you can only achieve this with flexible and creative thinking modelled first by leadership teams.

Sharing personal stories, anecdotes and wellbeing strategies is also important and can help us to mould our decisions and ideas. We are all human and experience life through different lenses: our thresholds of tolerance are different, our boundaries differ and our lived experiences often shape the person we are. Our communities are diverse and by celebrating this, we must remember to ensure we are diverse in our responses to supporting wellbeing.

Remember – a doughnut, albeit a nice treat, is not enough.

Staff Wellbeing Award

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