Since September, staff have worked tirelessly to support students and each other. But carrying on as normal amid a national lockdown is undoubtedly having an effect on staff morale. How can I support staff wellbeing through this time?
Alas, just as I thought things were looking up, here we are again in the middle of a second national lockdown.
A version 2.0, if you will. Where again we must "act now to save lives" (in a few days) and "stay at home" (unless you work in school.) Teachers, school leaders and support staff now find themselves in a rather surreal situation, whereby for all intents and purposes, it’s business as usual. Kind of.
Business as usual, but also managing cover for staff who are sick or isolating, ensuring that vulnerable staff working at home can do so effectively, while at the same time striving to avoid adding to the stress and workload of staff in school.
Business as usual, while trying to monitor for symptoms of Covid-19, keep hands washed, surfaces clean and bubbles apart, support children’s mental health and errr….teach?!
It’s a lot to cope with, even for the most determined and resilient among us. Indeed, as things currently stand, supporting staff wellbeing seems a lot less like proactive planning and a lot more like damage limitation. More than ever, we need to look at what we can do to help, within our sphere of control.
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the day-to-day running of school life is, at present, subject to constant change and that this will undoubtedly take its toll on wellbeing.
Added to this, school leaders are somehow expected to digest, enforce and disseminate the latest DfE guidance within 48 hours, which just adds a whole other layer of frantic chaos to this stress sandwich.
Keep on communicating
So what can we do? For one, we can really focus on communicating these changes as effectively as possible. In October of this year, Tes published its staff wellbeing report, based on answers to over 61,000 questions, answered by school staff across the globe.
In regards to communication, Staff Pulse results showed that only 46 per cent of staff felt that they were kept well-informed about what was happening in their school.
When staff aren’t kept abreast of what’s happening, stress levels rise. When it keeps happening, people begin to feel that they aren’t valued or respected; they begin to feel demotivated.
It’s important, therefore, to look at the way information is communicated to staff, to ask what’s working and what isn’t, and to make it better wherever you can. At least then, staff are shielded somewhat from the potential stress and panic.
Another issue highlighted in the Tes report was (unsurprisingly) workload, with just 44 per cent of staff describing their workload as manageable. The consequences of unmanageable workload are obvious – stress, anxiety, exhaustion and burnout.
Excessive workload is frequently cited as the reason we continue to experience a retention and recruitment crisis…and for some, things have only got harder this year.
Keep an ear to the ground
Just how much harder depends on your staff, students and school, but it’s crucial to find out.
Whether it’s via a staff meeting, an anonymous questionnaire or feedback from individual meetings, strive to monitor what your staff are currently doing differently, how much extra time and/or stress this is adding to their day, and how they’re coping (or not coping).
Find ways to ask what you might do as an SLT to make things easier. Could current policies and procedures be streamlined and simplified? Might purchasing some affordable resources help people to work smarter (and faster), not harder?
Could time out of class be given to the members of staff left "picking up the slack" in their colleagues' absence? Is it possible to temporarily and safely relocate support staff to a classroom where it’s desperately needed?
It’s never going to be possible to please everyone, but if we remember that some people may be harder hit than others – personally or professionally – we can at least seek to even things up.
Kindness is key and whether it’s in person or via email, a personalised "thank you" goes a long way to boost morale, as does any effort to really listen to what staff have to say.
Nurture the good stuff
The wellbeing report states that 65 per cent of staff said they loved working at their school.
According to Tes, "this happiness is driven largely by the relationships they build with colleagues, the mental stimulation their role provides and the sense of meaningfulness and pride that the job offers."
It would be wise then, for senior leaders to consider how they might nurture these aspects of the job; how they might encourage supportive relationships between staff (at a distance); whether staff have the creative freedom, resources and training to be stimulated, not overwhelmed; and how tasks and directives might be tied to a sense of meaning and overall vision for students and the school.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decision to keep schools open, you can’t deny that it hammers home that sense of meaningfulness for teachers. For many, there’s a feeling of being on the front line, of doing our bit for the kids, of being both useful and needed.
There’s also even more reason to revise, adapt and prioritise our approach to staff wellbeing if we’re to avoid becoming casualties of war.
Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant