Why staff wellbeing is the trigger for so much more

The impact of positive wellbeing can be far reaching. Here Tes News columnist Jo Steer looks at the knock-on effect of happiness.

Tes Editorial

A happy teacher

A guest blog from Tes News wellbeing columnist Jo Steer

In the last few years, the issue of staff wellbeing has risen up the priorities of the SLT agenda.

This is in part a response to the ever-increasing anxiety, depression and exhaustion experienced by educators, and undoubtedly made more pressing by the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis.   

To say that this is no easy task would be a massive understatement. School leaders are frequently expected to balance the mental and emotional health of their staff against a torrent of demands from parents, Ofsted, the DfE, boards of trustees and even the media.

All things considered, it’s easy to see why wellbeing is sometimes approached (and received) with a high level of scepticism.

Perhaps then, it might be useful to remind ourselves just why staff wellbeing really does matter, much more so than any external demands we might face, in ways both obvious and less so.

Why wellbeing is pivotal

Let’s begin with the blatantly obvious. Where staff wellbeing is so poor and unsupported that teachers feel forced to choose between their career and their mental health, turnover will likely be high, as will staff absence and sick leave.

This, in turn, may quickly spiral into more problems; as remaining staff are left to pick up extra work resulting from colleagues' absence, the consistency of teaching and learning takes an inevitable hit (often taking with it the support of parents impacted and affecting the school’s reputation). The school will also suffer financially, as more funds are diverted towards buying in supply staff.

When a school struggles to employ good teachers or to hang on to the ones they’ve got, there’s a sense that they’re always working from the back foot. It’s very difficult to embed consistent, long-lasting, meaningful progress (within the curriculum, culture or community) with a staff body that’s constantly changing.

It’s not that much easier, though, with a staff body who aren’t at the point of leaving, but aren’t really able to mentally "show up" either. Arguably, this kind of situation is even more dangerous for a school because it often doesn’t result in the same alarm – or action – that a more desperate situation might trigger, though the impact is just as devastating and far-reaching.

Simple cause and effect

On a base level, staff wellbeing impacts the standard of teaching and student learning outcomes. Of course it does.

A teacher with a solid work-life balance and a sense of job fulfilment will always have one up on someone who is mentally and emotionally exhausted: in terms of their ability to think on their feet, manage behaviour and provide effective feedback. That's not to mention the quality of planning that took place before the lesson even began.

Teaching is a career which challenges the most hardworking and capable at the best of times. It’s just not possible to do it consistently well if your wellbeing is in the gutter.

Meanwhile, out of the classroom, wellbeing influences how staff interact with one another, whether they’re empathetic or judgemental, patient or snappy, connected or competitive.

A school culture of perfectionism and comparison not only creates an unpleasant atmosphere – conditions which rarely incite people to perform at their best – but may well also hamper efforts to be collaborative, stifling creativity and potential innovation.

Finally, let’s remember the lasting impact that mental wellness, or illness, can have on individuals. Professionally, it might make the difference between someone speaking up or remaining silent, between someone going for a promotion or going home, between a school nurturing talent or losing out.

Let’s also be honest and say that when it comes to staff wellbeing, we don’t know the worst of it. We can’t know, because it happens in private, in the personal lives of staff. This is something I feel it’s important to remember.

Jo Steer is a wellbeing consultant working with schools. She is also a former teacher and Tes News columnist.

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