Staff wellbeing: A whole-school approach

The evidence suggests that a focus on staff wellbeing can lead to raised pupil attainment. Julian Stanley explains.

We know that good health and wellbeing are essential to happy schools. Great strides have been made in recognising their importance. Yet this awareness is often in direct contrast to the picture of what is actually happening on the ground in many schools.

If students cannot get the support they may need, where does that leave staff? More than ever, there is a need for staff and students alike to feel more resilient and better able to cope with pressure, and for heads and leadership teams to “lead by example”.

Calls to our confidential helpline from school heads in relation to workplace pressure are growing. School leaders, teachers and support staff alike discuss the strain they are under and dilemmas they are facing. In such a difficult climate, how can school leaders really make positive change happen? 

Professor Katherine Weare, former government advisor on work and health, in a resource published by the National Children’s Bureau in 2015 (A whole school framework for emotional wellbeing and mental health), advocates the adoption of whole-school thinking as a key principle to promoting social and emotional wellbeing and responding to mental health problems in schools.

Using a whole-school approach, she said, ensures that all parts of the school organisation “work coherently together”, helping to develop what she describes as a “supportive school and classroom climate ... building a sense of connectedness, focus and purpose”.

Many of the best school leaders understand this and share a common appreciation and understanding of the clear need for a longer term vision. 

In a literature review carried out by ourselves and the Work Foundation in 2014, we concluded that the evidence strongly suggests that improving a teacher’s health and wellbeing may actually help to raise pupil attainment more readily than tackling more complex factors such as SEN and a student’s background. 

Dame Carol Black, a long-term government advisor on health and work who supported the review, commented: “Having your teachers healthy and well, both mentally and physically, is crucial. It’s crucial to whole-school success.”

City of London Academy in Southwark understands the importance of this approach.

Hannah Matthews leads on wellbeing at the school and decided to work with us recently, using our expertise to ensure they were supporting their staff as well as they possibly can in the midst of growing challenges.

Ms Matthews and others in her leadership team showed the courage to identify what was and wasn’t working for the school and through our positive workplace survey, we worked with them to identify the issues and help them to make tangible changes that would work for them. Since then they’ve reported improved retention rates and staff have fed back that the school is a more positive place to work. 

This is impressive at a time when growing numbers of teachers are being signed off work with stress-related illness. Wellbeing, Ms Matthews says, is “now on our school’s whole development plan”. 

It is now on the agenda of regular meetings at City of London Academy and staff have fed back that they feel heard and positive in their roles and about working at the school. The school acknowledges that it will take time but their commitment to change has already reaped rewards. 

If you think staff wellbeing is something you don’t have time to tackle, think again. Addressing this has so much potential as a positive response to coping with difficult circumstances, finding ways to make more of a work/life balance, and to reduce sickness and absence. 

As City of London Academy has shown and as Prof Weare advises, a commitment to “a solid base of positive, universal work to promote wellbeing and help prevent problems” can reap rewards.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.