Wellbeing Around the World: Creating community spirit

Working in a major city like New York can be amazing - but also lonely and tough at times too, which is why creating a community in school is so important for wellbeing, explains this leader

Matt Payne

Wellbeing around the World: Community spirit in New York

In the third article in our Wellbeing Around the World series, we chat to Matt Payne, head of Lower School at Nord Anglia International School New York, about how he worked to help staff in one of the busiest cities in the world find time to connect and enjoy each other's company – and why that is so important. 

Why does staff wellbeing matter to you? 

Wellbeing in the international community has never been as important as it has over the last two years.

The whole world has struggled to push through the tribulations brought on by lockdowns, policy change and border closures but the worries, fears and anxieties regarding loved ones are exacerbated when you live thousands of miles away, as the distance is suddenly much more apparent.

Those feelings can transfer into all areas of our lives and affect the way we conduct ourselves in the workplace. Wellbeing matters as it can help us cultivate nurturing and positive environments so that we can all grow together.

Are there any wellbeing issues unique to your school?

New York is a bustling, vibrant city. Yet, it can also be an incredibly tough place to live. The constant hustle and bustle can bring a layer of stress that can, at times, be tricky to navigate through. A small commute could end up taking an hour as train delays leave passengers stood tirelessly on the platform – finally, resulting in tense cramped journeys home.

The expense is the real struggle. New York is an incredibly expensive place to live in. Teachers can often find themselves looking at their finances after rent is paid and questioning whether they can afford drinks out on Friday or if that new item of clothing can wait.

New York is an amazing city with so much to do. The Big Apple can also be a tiring hub of expense and exhaustion – it undoubtedly is not for everyone.

What wellbeing initiatives have you introduced in the last two to three years? 

This year, we have decided to schedule activities into the school calendar throughout the year. By doing so, we can arrange for specific activities that will help give staff events to look forward to and help to build morale amongst the team. Most of these have revolved around food and drink!

This has included a range of social events that can help to bring the team together. We have had events scheduled outside of school to change the environment and get people socialising and help build positive relationships that can strengthen trust and rapport back in the school building.

This has included events just for the staff, but we have also extended the invite to parents too. This has helped bolster the community feel but also aims to help staff build relationships with our families as well.

How did this idea come about? 

The idea came about from a few different indicators.

A result from our last set of staff engagement surveys was that there was a large percentage of the staff who were unsure if they wanted to continue living in New York. This made retaining our existing staff a priority. Keeping staff empowered and happy at work would be a way to keep them.

Additionally, last year was a very challenging and stressful year; we were back in person, but we were bubbled into different phases in the school. To make matters more challenging, most places – bars, restaurants and cafes were limited in occupancy, and event venues alike. Although we had had a number of online activities, they just did not garner the same personal interaction that everyone craved.

This year, as things progress across the city, we have had more options open to us in how we move forward. This means that we could arrange a variety of different events such as going for drinks, eating out together or hosting nights at the school.

How involved were staff in this work? 

As different head’s from across the school, we work closely with our teams and can feedback quite quickly to the rest of the senior leadership team. Over the course of last year, we were able to gain an understanding of what people were looking for through conversations and discussion. It became apparent the majority of staff were craving adult interaction. They work with the children all day and would then go home. Often just repeating this cycle with thinning patience towards the lack of social activities.

After this was fed back, action was taken to ensure these things were addressed. We are a small school without a huge cohort. This helped us, as heads of schools, know what our teams want and need and can articulate that informally without going through an unnecessarily stringent process.

How was this initiative rolled out on a practical level? 

We were able to roll this out smoothly. Being in the heart of Manhattan, we have links throughout the local community which has helped us. We were able to work with local restaurants to accommodate large crowds and food orders. Through adjustments to menus and seating, we could eat and chat in large groups and provide a space for staff to meet and spend time together in a relaxed way.

We have also encouraged our staff to join our community events. These have been planned to be varied in their approach so that they are fresh and different. These events are booked into the calendar and shared with staff as they approach so that they can decide whether to join in with the activities.

What was the impact and how did you measure this? 

So far, we have yet to collect any hard data. Through conversations with our small cohort, we can tell that our members of staff are enjoying the increase in staff activities outside of working hours. Recently, we have also sent an "Intentions Survey" to the staff.

This is to ask what our members of staff intend to do at the end of the school year. This has yielded positive results as no members of staff have indicated that they plan to leave. There is also an understanding that building staff wellbeing into what we do is about giving time and patience to change and shape the culture.

We will soon be conducting a staff engagement survey to measure how things are going. Hopefully, this will also indicate very positive answers to our continued changes in improving staff wellbeing.

Did you have to allocate or make decisions on spending if it required moving money from one budget to another to cover this? 

From a budgetary point of view, we had already had funds allocated to use on evenings out. This was not a huge amount of money though. To balance this, we have planned that the budget can be used for more formal events. This has included a "Welcome Back" night, which had food and drinks provided, as well as a "Winter Break" party and an "Ugly Jumpers Quiz Night" (which also includes parents!).

Then, there will be coffee nights and Friday evening drinks that are arranged less formally for staff to join – with the dates being set in advance to support people in making plans so that they are able to attend.

What overall advice would you offer to others thinking of doing something similar?

You cannot keep everyone happy with every decision. You just need to act and keep things varied. If you are trying to plan events that will include everyone and accommodate everyone, it will not work. There will always be someone who does not want to attend or cannot attend.

To solve this, it helps to have a variety of wellbeing events planned. Going for drinks this month, then a meal next month, then a quiz night the month after. This means that if one of these events is not to the taste of a member of staff – they feel less obliged to attend with future events just around the corner.

How do you look after your own wellbeing?

To look after my own wellbeing I must be disciplined. Far too often in the past, I have fallen into habits where I work too late too often. I would always tell myself that I could do just one more thing on the list. I am much better now at setting myself reasonable deadlines and boundaries.

Personally, I like to go to the gym and make sure I make time to do this after work each evening. It is a way to buffer work and relaxing at home and helps me to alleviate stress before unwinding for the night.

I am also an avid reader. I have built into my routine time to read, even if just a few pages. This helps me psychologically as I feel like I am giving myself time to enjoy the things I want and love in life. Personal wellbeing is important and finding ways to do the things you enjoy or are passionate about helps all areas of life.

Matt Payne is head of Lower School at Nord Anglia International School New York

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