I know a thing or two about stress! Namely, as a father to two beautiful girls, husband to a primary headteacher, part time PE teacher, experienced head of department (HOD) and newly founded business owner, with my company MindFirst UK. But, rarely do I ever feel stressed. Why? Because, I practise self care and prioritise myself - something that we need to teach and empower all education staff with. If we don’t, the education system is going to implode.
About five years ago I started a new job in a new school as HOD, and after two and a half terms I was diagnosed with burnout and prescribed antidepressants to help to clear the brain fog. When I told my line manager that I was struggling and what the doctor said, all they had in their management tool box was to add in an extra meeting! In this meeting we ended up discussing all the things that I wasn’t doing twice as often… You can imagine the positive impact that this had on my anxiety. There was nothing in place, no policy, that actively supported staff to overcome their challenges with stress and burnout. I felt that it was almost accepted as part of the job! Working on weekends and giving up time during the holidays felt like an expectation. My mind fitness did not improve and I actually found myself working more in order to cope with the expectations that I was placing on myself.
Unsurprisingly, after being in the role for one year, on a Sunday afternoon in January, instead of marking the final few GCSE mock papers in time for the data drop, I found myself rocking on my spare bed for 30 minutes hoping it would all go away. I returned to the doctors and I was signed off work for two months with reactive depression and burnout. Now, there is lots under the surface that contributed towards my mind injury such as my mum being diagnosed with terminal cancer, my first child being born and my wife suffering with postnatal depression and imposter syndrome. But, this is the reality of life.
Change makers need to understand the massive importance of staff well-being and how we MUST do more to truly look after our staff and the health of their mind and mind fitness. So, what is one of the biggest problems with staff wellbeing? Presenteeism! Too many staff go into work when they are ill because they feel pressured to do so. This is only going one why… and it is not a happy place. According to data recently published by the NEU, 44% of teachers are planning to leave before 2027.
But why are we letting this happen?
This obviously impacts our students' learning and there is a huge economic cost for the school due cover. But, there is also the emotional cost to the senior staff involved in organising cover, plus the additional pressure on the staff who are picking up extra workload. This negatively affects the cultural environment of the school and can make for a challenging and sadly sometimes TOXIC workplace. This will force good quality staff to leave the school or worse leave education all together!
BUT in order to make wider change, as leaders we MUST prioritise our mental health and well-being, but in a way that is not detrimental to those around us. Ironically when we are stressed we stop doing the things that destress us or we forget about the impact we have as leaders on other people's stress.
5 practical strategies for you to improve your personal well-being and the culture of your school or workplace:
Positive self reflection (3 good things/gratitudes)
Every evening write down or discuss over dinner 3 things that have gone well in your day. This will strengthen neurological pathways in your brain that can help you subconsciously think more positively and become happier, healthier and less stressed.
Authentically ask “how are you?”
In school (and life) people normally greet someone by saying “alright?” or “how’s it going”. But, they (you) rarely want to actually want them to answer. We either just walk past and don’t listen to the answer or the other person just lies and says “I’m good thanks, you?”. So, if you don’t have time to hear the answer then don’t ask just say “morning” or “Hi (insert name here)”
Flexible working in non contact time
Have you ever needed to go shopping, take the car to a garage or even just get your haircut and you just don’t have time. Or, go to watch your child's sports day. These small things can build to big things and it allows staff to take their planning, preparation and assessment time (PPA) offsite if they would like to have massive positive benefits for staff’s mental health and well-being. Equally, working out your staffing to allow people to work part time can really support their well-being. My school has been fantastic with this and my wife is lucky enough to be a Headteacher on a 0.8 timetable which includes 1 day working from home. This allows her the flexible time to be with our beautiful 18 month old. It is possible and can really help to reduce the stress of our staff so review the policy and question why you don’t do this (unless of course you do which is fantastic).
Oh my gosh, email culture. If you find yourself sending an email out of work hours make sure you schedule send it, schedule send or use delay delivery. By doing this it will have three benefits for you and the culture of your school:
- You will not be expecting anyone to respond so you can switch off.
- You feel good knowing that the recipient will not receive the email even if they ‘just check’ their email out of habit.
- This sets the tone that you do not expect staff to work on their evenings or weekends
If it is recognised that someone is doing a good job don’t expect that they know this is what you feel. Find them and tell them. Most teachers I know are constantly worrying whether they are doing a good job. So a little bit of direct recognition from senior leaders has an amazing impact. Now, on this I have heard senior leaders say and say to me.
“The problem with this is that they will always expect it. I have not got time to tell everyone they are doing a good job. That's what they are paid for.”
My response to this senior leader (who I was coaching at the time) was “have you ever tried this or is this just a belief” Answer = belief. I challenged him to send one email (that took no longer than one minute) recognising someone for something specific they have done or something that he was grateful for them doing. After doing this for two weeks he said to me that, not only did he think it had lifted the mood of his staff but, it actually made him feel happier performing this act of kindness. Of course, I anticipated this would happen.
So, there you have ‘5 ways to improve your well-being’. I promise you if you use just one of these techniques it will make you feel happier, more balanced and this will have a ripple effect and therefore improve the well-being culture of your school or workplace.
- Positive self reflection
- Authentically ask ‘how are you?’
- Flexible working
- Email culture
- Directed Praise
So, which one will you choose to do?