We need to change the sector's definition of teacher wellbeing | Education Support Partnership

We need to change the sector's definition of teacher wellbeing

Last year, 3,750 teachers were signed off on long-term sick leave due to stress; as the Health and Safety Executive moved teaching to number four in the list of the UK’s most stressful jobs. This was compounded by the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index findings, which reported rising levels of anxiety, depression and irritability amongst the profession.

As a result, there’s been widespread acknowledgement about the need to make staff wellbeing a priority, which is a crucial first step for the sector. Nevertheless, despite common agreement about its importance, the lack of clarity and consistency around what the term actually means risks limiting the progress that needs to take place.

This is not a challenge unique to education. Yet, in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, we’re in a period of time when clear, joined-up thinking and action is needed sooner rather than later.

Defining teacher wellbeing

We believe this confusion has often stemmed from the top. Successive governments have used the phrase "staff wellbeing" interchangeably with the latest prominent issue within education (such as accountability). Whilst they’re absolutely correct to acknowledge the impact that a specific policy decision or such demands will have on staff wellbeing; to imply this will be the sole determinant of an individual’s wellbeing or a school’s culture doesn’t comprehend the other factors at play.

Encouragingly, there appears to have been a recent shift in the Department for Education’s interpretation of the term. However, as they say, the proof will be in the pudding when they publish a new Recruitment and Retention Strategy in the coming weeks.

Within schools themselves, we hear regularly about a range of initiatives – from yoga to fruit bowls to gym subscriptions – introduced by leaders with a genuine commitment to wellbeing. Their passion, care and proactivity should be commended and certainly not undermined (nor should the positive impact of the examples outlined in some individuals).

However, the adding of new activities does not always address more fundamental cultural factors, which, if left unattended, could be more impactful.

What causes work-related stress?

As a charity, we’re currently in the process of analysing over 103,000 responses to Positive Workplace Surveys we’ve conducted in schools across England over the past seven years. Through early evaluation of this data, it becomes clear that influences such as leadership, line management, relationships with colleagues, control over workload, student behaviour and respect are consistently identified as the biggest causes of work-related stress.

These are the real issues that need addressing within schools, and senior leaders (with incredibly demanding remits) need additional support to make this happen. These are the areas that can deliver lasting improvements.

The new Ofsted Inspection Framework provides a potentially transformational opportunity to reconsider how we measure staff wellbeing in schools; moving towards how staff are listened to, engaged and respected within in an institution rather than the number of initiatives on offer.

Change at a structural and individual school level is crucial; however, we must never ignore the reality that wellbeing is the result of both professional and personal circumstances. The belief that staff can simply flick a switch when passing through the school gates is not realistic.

Issues in teachers' personal lives 

Out of the 8,600 cases that our counsellors managed last year through the charity’s emotional support helpline, a significant number of these related to issues in someone’s personal life, which was impacting on their work. Furthermore, the Employee Assistance Programme we run is used three times more by education staff than the UK-wide average, extending to specialist support for things such as relationship breakdown, bereavement or infertility.

School staff are ultimately people, not just employees. Failure to consider the human and personal aspect within any definition of staff wellbeing would fall short of the reality.

Finally, we must agree as a sector that wellbeing is not just about happiness. It extends to feeling challenged, having a sense of purpose and feeling a sense of achievement and contribution to society. Working in education should help to fulfil all these requirements – they’re the key reasons why people enter this great profession – yet far too often the pressures of the role and the lack of support are preventing a dedicated, talented and committed generation of educators from feeling good enough (a key theme to emerge from the open responses within the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018).

Achieving a balance

Wellbeing is about achieving balance. It’s about an individual’s ability to balance the psychological, social and physical resources they possess against the challenges they come up against. The balance point will be dependent on a range of external factors.  However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that an individual’s emotional intelligence, resilience and psychological state are all things that can be managed and developed. This is why we’re calling for a greater focus on these aspects within initial teacher training and CPD.

Ultimately, there’s no quick fix to staff wellbeing. Achieving positive wellbeing is not black and white; it’s not something that can be accomplished through a single intervention; neither can it be a fixed state. What does need to happen, though, is the formation of a sector-wide strategy (informed by research and evidence) which maps out the minimum changes that need to occur over the coming years at a structural, environmental and individual level.

The size of this challenge should not be underestimated. However, at the start of 2019, we're feeling extremely positive. Last year, the appetite for change across the sector was at an all time high. There’s a realisation that now is the time to act. Only with a concerted effort at every level, though, can this be achieved. But, first and foremost, we need a definition we can agree on.

* This blog first appeared in TES on 8th January.