5 ways school leaders can model wellbeing to staff

By Mark Steed on 12 June 2021

To truly create a school culture that protects staff wellbeing, leaders need to lead by example, says Mark Steed

There is a famous saying in business that "culture eats strategy for breakfast". This is usually taken to mean that the culture of a company always determines success, regardless of how effective the strategy may be.

Over the past 10 years, schools have introduced a range of strategies to enhance staff wellbeing: I’ve worked in schools where we have provided fruit at break and put on yoga and even gong baths at lunchtime.

However, these strategies are useless if the culture of the school is pulling in a different direction. Thirty minutes of meditation is not going to cut it if the overriding context is an "arrive early, leave late" culture.

The drivers of work culture are complex and evolve over time, but a significant factor is how the senior leadership team behaves. They set the standard, not by what they say but by how they act. If school leaders are sending emails and WhatsApps at 10.30pm at night, that sets the level of expectation and establishes the norm for the school community.

Teacher wellbeing: How school leaders can set a good example

So, if your school is committed to staff wellbeing, work-life balance, staff spending quality time with their families and so on, then the principal and SMT need to lead by example and set the tone for the organisation. Here are five ways that school leaders can do this:

1. Leave work on time

The core working day for teachers at our school is 7.30am to 3.30pm, with after-school activities, when we have them, running until 4.30pm.

As a school principal, I believe it is important to leave on time whenever my schedule allows.

Doing this tacitly gives permission for others to leave at the end of the school day to manage other commitments – and sends the message that working late is not a virtue.

I do so guilt-free – not least because there are many days when I know I will work into the evening on work calls to the UK in the early evening or attending a board meeting.

2. Hold meetings in core hours

Where possible, meetings should be held in core hours. No one likes after-school meetings. but they are sometimes necessary to get key personnel together.

A school that has a genuine commitment to wellbeing should keep after-school meetings to a minimum and the chair should ensure that they are run efficiently.

One way to do this is to put as many regular meetings, such as faculty/year group departmental meetings, as possible into the timetable. Any school can make this happen – it is a question of priorities.

3. Avoid sending out-of-hours emails

I’m a great believer that schools should consider introducing an email curfew from 7pm to 7am and at weekends; this delineates the working day and creates clear personal time.

Anyone wishing to compose emails between these times times should use the delayed delivery feature so that they can clear their to-do list without putting pressure on colleagues out-of-hours.

In my experience, this needs policing carefully – it is often members of the senior team who are the worst culprits,

At Berkhamsted School, in the UK, where I was principal, introducing an email curfew not only enhanced staff wellbeing in term time, but it also reduced overall email traffic by 37 per cent (imagine that – 37 per cent less email traffic!)

4. Use your 'out of office'

In a similar vein, putting on the "out of office" feature not only buys guilt-free time at the weekend and in the holidays, but it also sends a clear message to parents, the board and to colleagues that it is OK to have time away from the desk.

We all need to time to regroup, to step back from the stress – school leaders should encourage their community to use the "out of office" feature and not feel guilty for putting it on.  

5. Talk the walk

We have all met the colleague who "complains" about being the last to leave and working into the small hours as if it is a badge of honour.

School leaders need to challenge this sort of talk both to understand the reasons for the individual’s work crisis, and to make it clear that long hours are not seen as a virtue.

Leaders also need to be open and talk about their own downtime – there should be no shame or guilt in a headteacher having a round of golf, going on a Sunday morning run or cycle ride, or crashing on a sunbed by a pool, for that matter.

Such openness about one’s downtime can be refreshing not only for the school leader concerned, but it also sets the tone for the community.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead