3 effective ways schools can prioritise staff wellbeing

It's important to put staff mental health high on the agenda or schools risk losing their most important assets

Nic Ford

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Chris* was a popular teacher in both the classroom and the staffroom because of his high level of energy and enthusiasm.

Like a third of all teachers, Chris worked more than 50 hours a week, significantly above his contracted hours, to stay on top of the demands of teaching – including planning lessons and marking. He accepted this as part of the job.  

Yet, when one of Chris’ parents was diagnosed with degenerative dementia, he had to act as a carer, which involved a four-hour round trip, during the week and weekends.

This caused significant strain and Chris struggled to manage the unrelenting workload pressures. He missed one of the many rigid assessment deadlines, and so used his professional judgement to complete grades for his class instead.

However, this represented a breach of the school’s assessment policy, so Chris soon found himself in front of the headteacher being told that he would face a disciplinary investigation. It was at this point that stress, physical exhaustion and anxiety finally caught up with Chris and he was signed off work for nine months. 

The state of mental health and wellbeing in UK schools

Sadly, incidents like this are not uncommon in UK schools. Research by Education Support reveals the extent of the stress and anxiety caused by excessive workloads.

In the charity's most recent Teacher Wellbeing Index, 72 per cent of respondents described themselves as stressed, with a worrying 78 per cent reporting behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to work issues.

Of those reporting symptoms, 46 per cent had signs of anxiety and 35 per cent depression, with half actually diagnosed by a GP.  Furthermore, rates of insomnia, irritability, forgetfulness, tearfulness, overeating and headaches/migraines were all worse than in 2018. 

The poor state of wellbeing and mental health in UK schools has a significant impact on pupil progress, and prolonged absences place further burdens on already stretched budgets and other colleagues. So, what can senior leaders do to promote wellbeing in schools and what are school's legal and ethical responsibilities to help staff?

1. Manage workload pressures

Legally, schools, like all employers, need to ensure that staff have minimum breaks of at least 20 minutes when they work more than six hours, at least 11 hours between each day of work and 24 hours off every week (or 48 hours every fortnight). 

The reality for many teachers, however, is that juggling marking, planning and other assessment-related duties means they work through breaks and, often, during evenings and weekends.

The workload pressures and a lack of work-life balance are, as uncovered by the Health and Safety Executive and reported by Ofsted, making “teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain”. As a result, the majority of teachers (71 per cent) cite this as the main factor for considering leaving the profession.

There is work being done to address this. The Department for Education launched a working group in 2016 that acknowledged: “Marking has evolved into an unhelpful burden for teachers, when the time it takes is not repaid in positive impact on pupils’ progress.” It made a series of recommendations to reduce marking workloads. 

These included schools exploring different assessment practices to support their pedagogy and school leaders reviewing assessment practices to ensure policies did not place unreasonable demands on teachers’ time.

Many schools have responded to this, whether with whole-class marking methods like in Michaela Community School, utilising technology for verbal feedback in the Olive School, or simply encouraging more verbal feedback in the classroom. Another school, which reported to the Chartered College of Teaching, found that introducing a no-marking policy had a positive impact on staff, with one member of staff saying it had "changed my life".

It’s certainly worth schools considering how they could adapt their marking practices to ensure they are not so burdensome that teachers consider leaving the profession.

2. Manage behaviour pressures

Student behaviour is also an issue for teachers’ mental health and wellbeing. Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019 found that 51 per cent of teachers had considered leaving the profession as a result of student behaviour.

It’s mandatory for all schools to have a behaviour policy, so this is an area in which staff have a right to be supported by school leaders. However, an Ofsted report on teacher wellbeing found that this was not always the case.

It’s vital for teachers and school leaders to work together to create a culture of high expectations of behaviour, with clear and consistent approaches to managing transgressions, including low-level disruption.

Teachers need to be trained in the behaviour policy of the school and then have the full backing of leaders to implement this accordingly so that behaviour management doesn’t go from being a nuisance to a serious issue.

3. Support staff wellbeing

Schools also have a legal responsibility to ensure that staff health and safety policies are updated annually and provide clear procedures for dealing with bullying and grievances.

Yet, some schools have been slow to implement mental health support for staff as it is often omitted from these policies, despite schools having a legal duty to ensure the health of staff both physically and mentally.  In fact, some form of mental illness can be protected by the Equality Act 2010 and schools have a legal responsibility to support those workers. 

Research by Education Support found that only 27 per cent of respondents said they had access to employee assistance counselling services.  At Bolton School, we have staff trained in Mental Health First Aid and provide all staff with free access to an employee assist programme to allow them access to support at any time.

Similarly, only 33 per cent of staff said their school had attempted to survey them to monitor mental health and wellbeing.

It’s vital for all schools to treat mental health and wellbeing as seriously as they take other aspects of health. This is something Ofsted has now finally recognised: the importance of staff wellbeing as part of the criteria for a school to be judged as having outstanding leadership is “staff consistently report high levels of support for wellbeing issues”.

This would mean teachers like Chris receive the help and support they need when it’s most required, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of the school and its pupils. The cost of poor mental health and wellbeing among staff is decreasing productivity, limiting pupil progress and impacting school budgets. Schools must treat wellbeing seriously, not just as something that can be solved with a few exercise classes, but an issue that must be at the heart of their culture – and their duty of care, too.

*This name has been changed and the person is not connected with the author’s school

Nic Ford is academic deputy head at Bolton School (Boys’ Division) 

Leaders can get external support from a growing number of suppliers lining up to help schools design and implement their mental health and wellbeing policies. Find out how Education Support can help you to support your staff

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