Why teacher wellbeing is at risk - and what you can do about it

The profession is losing valuable working days – not to mention morale – because of mental ill health, at a time when it can least afford to do so. Caroline Henshaw speaks to schools that are facing up to the wellbeing issues having a chilling effect on staff
25th January 2019, 12:00am
Magazine Article Image


Why teacher wellbeing is at risk - and what you can do about it


The first time that headteacher Daniella Lang sat down to talk about her colleagues’ mental health, she had to face some hard truths. When she took the helm in 2015, Brimsdown Primary School in North London had been rated “requires improvement” twice and was in the lowest 10 per cent in the country for Year 6 reading progress. There were issues with training, CPD and work schemes, which were swiftly compounded by the redundancies Lang was forced to make because of budget cuts.

So, she decided it was time to listen to her colleagues’ concerns. The feedback was hard to hear. Staff were anxious about the school’s future and upset by the job losses. A survey found that a fifth of them didn’t feel inspired, less than half believed they were backed by their line manager and only 42 per cent felt they got the support required to do their job. It was clear that things needed to change.

Brimsdown’s case is far from unique. Wellbeing in schools has hit headlines in recent months, as concerns have grown about rising levels of mental health problems among both pupils and teachers, and the widespread effect this is having on education.

In a survey by the NASUWT teaching union, nearly eight out of 10 school staff said their work had become more stressful over the past year, causing them anxiety and loss of sleep. A fifth had started drinking more alcohol and three out of 10 had turned to medication in an attempt to cope with the strain of their jobs.

Mental health problems are also contributing to the recruitment and retention crisis. Research by the Liberal Democrats found that 3,750 teachers in England were signed off on long-term leave in 2016-17 - a rise of 5 per cent compared with the previous year. In total, teachers missed 1.3 million days over four years, including 312,000 in 2016-17 alone - equivalent to losing 1,600 teachers from the workforce.

At Brimsdown, Lang realised that she could not turn things around by herself. So she decided to create a staff wellbeing team to improve morale. “I could see there was lot of upset around the school,” she says. “I needed a group of people who could support me as a leader thinking about staff wellbeing [and who] could really get to the bottom of what was causing the most upset and stress.”

Lang started small. She moved a photocopier to cut admin time and changed the cleaning rota to ensure there were always clean mugs at breaktime. Creating a “pick and mix” CPD scheme allowed staff to decide what training they needed and when, leaving them more time to study other topics of interest, such as mindfulness and resilience.

The staff team also started their own morale-boosting initiatives, including creating a wellbeing board and “mugging” individual members of staff by giving them mugs of treats. While requests for fresh flowers and fruit were too expensive for the school’s squeezed budget, schemes including a book and DVD swap and fitness classes have proved a hit.

More importantly, the process started a wider discussion about mental health. “Now the culture is embedded that people will come [to talk to me] if something’s a problem,” says Lang. “Everybody should be celebrating and showing those acts of kindness to each other - it’s not just about leaders doing that.”

In 2016, the Ivy Learning Trust, which includes Brimsdown, implemented a more drastic policy change: all pupils now had to mark their own work. While the shift to verbal feedback was tough at first, the impact has been huge. Results have improved, teachers’ workload has been slashed, staff wellbeing has shot up and retention has improved by 50 per cent in two years.

“It was quite radical - we actually removed all the teachers’ pens,” says Matthew Kleiner-Mann, chief executive of the trust. “We’ve not only cut workload but ensured that every single member of staff is making a difference - and they know they’re making a difference.”

Deflated by ‘hyperaccountability’

Teachers’ mental health issues are well known, discussed at length in media articles, analysed in myriad reports and crystallised in reams of statistics. All give similar reasons for the current crisis: unbearable workload and long hours; a “hyperaccountability” culture and pressure to produce good results; lack of agency in the classroom; deteriorating pupil behaviour; and, of course, funding cuts.

Unsurprisingly, these issues tend to be worse in struggling schools. As one headteacher, who asked not to be named, put it: “My most challenging experience with staff wellbeing was leading a school judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted … In an atmosphere of such high accountability and pressure, it was unrealistic to expect staff to speak freely about their mental health to line managers.”

Many of these problems are rooted in the constant pressure for schools to do more with less following years of per-pupil funding cuts. In the face of such structural difficulties, experts say ensuring good staff wellbeing often boils down to effective leadership.

“Headteachers are absorbing the brunt of the difficulties that the wider education policy created,” says Sinéad McBrearty, acting chief executive of the Education Support Partnership (ESP), which has been supporting teachers’ mental health for 140 years. “The headteacher has a really important role in interpreting how changes in the external environment will be digested and implemented in their specific school.

“I hear teachers describing work environments that are archaic, where the culture and the leadership is very last century … people being told what to do and how to do it, and not to make a fuss and not to push back.

“The heroes in this story are the school leaders who have an emotionally intelligent outlook, who create a strong and supportive culture, who leave staff feeling motivated, [and] who leave staff feeling equipped to do the best they can.”

Despite the continual barrage of gloomy statistics about teacher wellbeing, the issue is not a stated priority in most schools. Instead, it’s often seen as just another in a long list of things staff have neither the time nor the money to do. Only 2 per cent of secondary schools publish their mental health policies online, Department for Education research has found, compared with 96 per cent that lay out their stance on the pupil premium or behaviour. More startlingly, three-quarters of teachers surveyed recently by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families said their mental health was not monitored at work at all.

Experts say the increasing focus on school wellbeing in the media and policy circles is slowly prompting change. Studies showing the financial impact of mental health issues, which McBrearty estimates are costing the education sector between £2.6 billion and £2.8 billion per year, have added extra impetus.

However, the quality of mental health strategies varies enormously between schools - and not just because of budgets. Experts say policies should be embedded throughout the school and based on solid evidence - they caution against gimmicks such as installing a massage chair in the classroom or monitoring wellbeing using random questionnaires posted online.

“Whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re gathering baseline data before you start your intervention,” says Jaime Smith, director of mental health and wellbeing in schools at the Anna Freud Centre. “My worry is that people just google things on the internet and then start doing it in the classroom.

“Because there is a light shining on child mental health now, this space has become extremely crowded … I would encourage any schools that are buying in and working with any organisations [that offer wellbeing services] to really look into them first.”

Richard Faulkner, head of policy, research and communications at ESP, agrees, adding: “There are more mental health policies in place [in schools], but the quality of them is an issue. I’ve seen ones where literally this is something the governors have requested and it’s a basic side of A4. It’s got to have substance and it’s got to be known within the school … There’s more to it than just buzzwords.”

Out with the inbox

Faced with this mental health minefield, schools have started devising different strategies to improve staff wellbeing.

At Rickley Park Primary in Milton Keynes, the leadership teams have remodelled their child-tracking data systems to reduce workload, while their head has stopped emailing outside of working hours, in a bid to promote a better work-life balance. Tapton School, a Sheffield secondary, has taken an even more drastic approach and switched off its computer server between 7pm and 6am on Monday to Friday, as well as at weekends, so that staff simply cannot send emails.

At Lessness Heath Primary School in Kent, as a newly appointed headteacher, Kate O’Connor sought outside support to build morale while the school fought to get out of special measures. In 2016, she brought in Kelly Hannaghan as a part-time wellbeing officer to mend relationships between staff, students and parents, and they have never looked back (see box, page 48).

Today, Lessness Heath has a “good” rating from Ofsted, including “outstanding” welfare provision. The school is working closely with organisations such as the Anna Freud Centre and the Child Outcomes Research Consortium to improve wellbeing monitoring and, in June, became the first winner of the Wellbeing Award for Schools. It even has a “therapy dog” named Lola.

Mindful of the budget pressures in education, Hannaghan and O’Connor have also set up a wellbeing consultancy that offers advice to other schools in the Primary First Trust, and generates revenue through seminars and speaking at conferences.

“I think sometimes mental health and wellbeing can be quite fluffy [and paid] lip service,” says Hannaghan. “Schools are like businesses now so it’s about making the most of what you’ve got … It’s a case of not being able to afford not to.”

Caroline Henshaw is a reporter for Tes. She tweets @CazTes

A ‘wellbeing menu’ of yoga and art

“The school was in a space were relationships needed to be built and trust needed to be regained,” says Kelly Hannaghan, recalling the situation when she first started as a part-time wellbeing officer at Lessness Heath Primary.

A “culture of blame” had evolved between staff and parents, she says.

“We initially focused on pupil wellbeing, but we realised we needed to look at staff wellbeing and family wellbeing as well. We feel that if you don’t get relationships right, you don’t get mental health right, [then] how can you expect the children to attain?”

The Kent school started by devising a strategy to monitor staff mental health through regular questionnaires and by weaving it into the appraisal process. Each month, staff are assigned different group activities, such as yoga or art, as part of a “wellbeing menu”. Senior leaders have also implemented an open-door policy to enable discussion of any problems, and teachers can request individual wellbeing supervision if needed.

Building better relationships with families was another crucial part of the turnaround. To this end, the school put on wellbeing courses to empower parents and give them strategies to cope with their children’s behaviour, as well as offering pupils lessons in mindfulness and yoga.

Hannaghan says the workshops have made a huge difference, both at school and to pupils’ families. “The significant change has been the relationships between the parents and teachers, and that has had a huge impact on the mental health of staff,” she says.

“Because we upskill parents through our ‘family matters’ programme on mental health triggers and conditions … they are able to empathise with the hard job teachers have every day. The relationships between the teachers and parents are now really positive.”

What the experts say: how to boost wellbeing

“Be really sensitive about how you approach people. Offer everything you can, but don’t expect people to engage with it.” Kelly Hannaghan, wellbeing leader, Primary First Trust

“A lot of initiatives that people think of as wellbeing initiatives aren’t, [so you need to] delve a bit deeper [for long-term results].” Richard Faulkner, head of policy, research and communications, Education Support Partnership

Don’t underestimate the power of a well-run back office. “If it’s well organised and efficient, it saves time and stops people being irritated.” Matt Kleiner-Mann, chief executive, Ivy Learning Trust

“Role-modelling self-care and demonstrably placing a value on wellbeing … is very powerful.” Sinéad McBrearty, acting chief executive, Education Support Partnership

This article originally appeared in the 25 January 2019 issue under the headline “How to beat the blues in January - and in February, March, April …”

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.