This month, we welcome back a small number of students and an increasing number of staff, inside a bubble of yellow tape, altered routines and hand sanitiser.
How can I communicate positivity and purpose while being supportive of staff, including those who are struggling?
We’re living through some strange and uncertain times right now.
Even as we move towards the "new normal" in our corridors and classrooms, everything feels that little bit less familiar. Like a dream version of reality, rather than reality itself.
What is familiar, at least, is this problem.
Because how to talk about mental health in an open, non-stigmatising, professional yet empathetic manner is something that school leaders – in fact, leaders from every profession – have been pondering since long before 2020.
Let’s face it, the teaching profession was hardly a picture of mental stability pre-Covid-19. As I see it, unless current events somehow trigger a complete upheaval of the education system (fingers crossed), the problem of teacher wellbeing isn’t going anywhere.
Therefore, it really pays to consider the importance of communication as a tool to support staff wellbeing.
Communication to support staff wellbeing
As a leader, it’s important to motivate staff in a forward direction; to openly celebrate staff strengths, skills and achievements; to inspire passion and purpose in all that they do.
This kind of attitude is both beneficial and contagious: the genuine enthusiasm of some school leaders can uplift the most miserable of staff meetings.
Just beware laying it on too thick, and thus appearing delusional and even dismissive.
Now, more than ever, it’s easy to turn a quick pep talk into a "finest hour" speech, and although some staff may be thoroughly revved up by a bit of wartime rhetoric (me included), you risk alienating the more vulnerable members of your audience if you don’t stay grounded in reality.
Remember that to people who are struggling mentally, it can be difficult to think beyond one day at a time. Even the most basic tasks and routines may feel stressful or overwhelming.
Therefore, speaking in grand, lofty terms will, at best, cause these people to disengage. At worst, it may feed into a victim-or-Viking mentality, whereby imperfections are seen as weakness or failure and difficulties are hidden or covered up.
Think less blind positivity and more realistic, honest optimism.
Take an honest approach
There’s always the need to shelter staff from the trivial (and often stressful) details that they don’t need to know, but a good dose of honesty is often well-received. You can say: “Things are really tough right now, but we’re going to do X, Y and Z, and get through this together.”
Better still, if you’re brave enough to show vulnerability from time to time – to talk about what you’ve found difficult and admit to where you’re still learning rather than knowing – you’ll likely strengthen your connection with staff. And you may well empower them to be more accepting and open in terms of their own obstacles.
Speaking of which, if you’re looking to create a culture in which people feel safe to open up, make sure that staff know the actual logistics of who and when they can speak to someone if they’re not coping.
Whether it’s your own door that’s always open or someone else’s, it bears repeating from time to time. You may like to share the number for the Education Support Partnership helpline for those who may prefer to speak to a stranger or may require counselling.
Create a common language
Remember that the most effective wellbeing approaches take place in collaboration with the whole staff.
There needs to be a shared vocabulary based on what is and isn’t OK, what mental illness might look like and how best to support a colleague who isn’t coping.
So what should this support look like? What should or shouldn’t we say? It’s natural to feel awkward and unsure, particularly when speaking to people experiencing situations, thoughts or feelings that you honestly don’t feel qualified to support.
Luckily, you needn’t be a mental health professional in order to demonstrate empathy, which is essentially what this is about.
You just have to make it clear that you’re there to listen without judgement; that you’re talking with this person, rather than at them. You just need to put them at ease.
What you say will obviously depend on the individual and the situation, and it’s important to let them speak as much or as little as they wish without leading them in a particular direction.
With that said, asking some open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me more to help me understand?” or even, “Can you walk me through that?” might allow them to voice what they need to.
Offer support, whether that means working through a Mind Wellbeing Action Plan (WAP) together, providing information that they can take away or helping them to seek professional support. There’s no quick-fix here and you can only do your best, within your limitations.
At any rate, it’s your willingness to actually have these conversations that really matters.