Reasons to Put Staff Wellbeing At The Top of Your School’s Priority List

9 Reasons to Put Staff Wellbeing At The Top of Your School’s Priority List

If student academic success and school performance are on a school leader’s agenda, then leader, teacher, and staff wellbeing should be a forethought, not an afterthought. 

It should come as absolutely no surprise when I say that there has never been a more crucial time to include staff wellbeing in every decision we make regarding our school. 

As school leaders, teachers, and staff navigate some of the most stressful times in education, the students in our schools feel the full brunt of our burnout, frustration, anxiety, and (at times) negativity. Plenty of evidence shows that staff wellbeing impacts our student’s wellbeing, learning, and life outcomes. Furthermore, the mental health outcomes of our staff and community are also dependent on school culture.

Despite the many promising and necessary wellbeing initiatives introduced in schools, many approaches are reactive in nature, which means they can seem tokenistic or surface level. This can result in schools “spinning their wheels” and adopting initiatives that do little to improve their staff’s stress levels, wellbeing, and mental health. If anything, a tokenistic approach prolongs the ineffective impact this can have on students, school performance, and outcomes. 

This article will cover nine research-backed reasons why staff wellbeing must be at the top of every school’s priority list. 

9 Reasons to Put Staff Wellbeing at The Top of Your School’s Priority List 

1. Impacted wellbeing impacts staff physical and mental health

Mental health and wellbeing in schools are becoming increasingly critical, with mental health problems being one of the leading causes of absence, long-term work incapacity, and reduced work performance in Australia (1, 3). The impacts of short staffing during the pandemic, strained physical health of staff, and the collective trauma students, staff, and the community are experiencing only further amplify these problems. 

Several studies have found that school staff experience higher levels of work-related stress than employees in other occupations, putting them at increased risk of common mental health disorders (1). Leaders, teachers, and staff are exposed to numerous and sometimes ongoing stressors that can compromise their health and wellbeing, including excessive workload, complex and challenging student needs, and pressure to meet school targets and administrative duties. 

Stress negatively impacts the attention, memory, and emotional regulation of staff. It’s also linked to physical complications such as cardiovascular disease and mental wellbeing issues such as depression and anxiety. Chronic work stress may result in staff burnout which is a leading contributor to high levels of sick leave, absenteeism, and job attrition (1, 4, 5) 

2. Teacher and staff stress, burnout and mental health influences student mental health

High levels of unmanaged workplace stress, burnout and mental health challenges of staff have negative effects on students and school communities. 

Teacher burnout is associated with increased student cortisol levels, suggesting that teacher stress can influence student physical stress responses (1, 5, 6). Emotional wellbeing inspires positive mental health by reducing depression, stress, and anxiety and increasing coping skills and resilience, self-esteem, performance, and productivity at work and in the community (1, 7). When teachers are better able to cope with their environment and stressors, it leaves them more energy and patience to nurture the behaviours and wellbeing of students.  

A number of studies conclude that teachers who come from an environment where teacher wellbeing is prioritised (and training provided), go on to improve the mental health of their students (26).

3. Impacted teacher and staff wellbeing influences staff and student engagement

Burnout, stress, and fatigue affect teachers’ engagement, impacting the quality of their pedagogy (2,8). 

Students can sense when a teacher isn’t fully engaged in the classroom, impacting their perception of what’s expected of them. For example, if a teacher shows up to class exhausted, disgruntled, and puts little energy into teaching and engaging the students, it’s more likely that students will also feel disengaged and lack focus. Teacher motivation and self-efficacy are affected by challenging working conditions and stressful work environments, which impact the quality of their teaching, and harm their wellbeing and health. (2)

Teachers who feel well are more focused, engaged, and have energy, stamina, and zest in the classroom – all essential for influencing student engagement and performance.

4. Staff wellbeing influences the entire school community 

When teachers and staff feel engaged and motivated in their work, it has a positive ripple effect that leads to improved school culture and student outcomes. 

Evidence supports that when staff feel well and supported at work, and the school has a positive culture, it positively impacts student wellbeing and academic success. Furthermore, when staff aren’t chronically stressed or burnt out, there’s more room to form positive relationships with colleagues, leaders, and the entire school community. (1,2)

It is, therefore, crucial to consider how influences on wellbeing, in particular the impact of school climate on the school community, when implementing new strategies to improve staff wellbeing – not only for performance and engagement purposes but also for the overall health and wellbeing of the whole school community.

5. A focus on wellbeing builds school culture

Until recently, staff wellbeing hasn’t been a main priority for schools, which is an oversight. However, staff wellbeing is key to the success of the whole school community, the success of the leadership team, the quality of teaching, and the health and wellbeing of students. 

A supportive wellbeing-focused school culture can mitigate the risk of stress experienced by staff in schools. A supportive school community has been found to mediate the negative impact of stress, help to prevent burnout, and have a positive effect on teacher job satisfaction and mental health (1, 9, 10, 11,12).

Furthermore, a positive school climate can reduce staff burnout and promote retention (1,13). Staff who perceive their schools as stressful or negative work environments are leaving their positions as they seek new careers or schools where the culture is more focused on wellbeing.

A whole-school focus on wellbeing can provide staff and leaders with a shared vision for improved school culture. This vision promotes a sense of belonging, encourages collaboration amongst staff, sets gentle expectations and standards and provides opportunities for staff to address their wellbeing – leading the way for a more positive school culture.

6. A focus on wellbeing influences workplace satisfaction 

School leader and staff wellbeing impact job commitment, satisfaction, and performance. Before implementing any new strategies designed to support staff wellbeing, we need to pinpoint what challenges staff are encountering that could be contributing to impacted stress levels and mental health. When we finally pinpoint and address the causes of stress in our schools, we can see an increase in commitment, motivation, and job satisfaction (2, 14, 15,16).

Job satisfaction is positively associated with staff self-efficacy, enthusiasm, motivation, commitment, and job performance. These, in turn, influence student wellbeing, behaviour, attendance, and educational outcomes (2).

7. Staff wellbeing influences school-wide relationships

Teachers with negative feelings about their jobs or those with poor wellbeing have more difficulty forming positive relationships with colleagues and students. 

When relationships between teachers and students aren’t well formed or positive, it can impact their ability to manage student behaviour in the classroom, form connections and create and plan engaging lessons. Emotionally exhausted teachers may use reactive and punitive responses that contribute to negative classroom climates and student-teacher relationships (17). If stress is left unmanaged, it can create a cycle where teacher stress and student misbehaviour fuel each other. 

Relationships between leaders and colleagues are equally as important. Caring and supportive relationships in the workplace promote a sense of belonging in the school and ensure school staff feel connected, valued, supported, and respected by their leaders and peers. Poor school connectedness results in poorer academic and mental health outcomes for students (18).

8. When leaders are seen prioritising staff wellbeing, schools experience increased performance outcomes

School leaders play a key role in securing student academic success and wellbeing. They are responsible for nurturing a supportive school environment and culture and setting the tone and expectations of the school community’s behaviour, values and vision. 

Supportive relationships and positive feedback between teachers and leaders are particularly important for staff wellbeing and job satisfaction during periods of change or crisis. A school culture that embodies a supportive and empathetic approach to staff wellbeing opens the door for vulnerability, good communication, and connection between staff. 

Additionally, leaders who provide staff opportunities for professional development, autonomy, meaningful communication, and decision-making improve and maintain school staff wellbeing. 

Teachers who feel supported by colleagues and leaders report enhanced professional wellbeing and self-efficacy, less work-related stress and pressure, and a greater capacity to prioritise their students (2, 19). Perceived support in the workplace also leads to higher job satisfaction, solidifying commitment and performance. 

9. Staff wellbeing has the power to influence student learning

Evidence suggests that if school staff feel well and supported, it will improve student wellbeing and academic success. This is because teacher and student wellbeing, relationships amongst staff, and educational outcomes are closely connected. 

In a 2009 study, Duckworth, Quinn, and Seligman (27) found teacher grit (resilience) and life satisfaction were predictive of student academic gains. Similarly, when teachers intentionally use strategies to support their own wellbeing, there are flow-on effects in their teaching practice and student learning (28).

Increased teacher wellbeing enables stronger connections with students and improved student learning and academic outcomes. Further, teachers’ self-efficacy has a positive relationship with student achievement and motivation (2, 20-24) because it enables instructional creativity and ensures curriculum planning matches student needs (2, 25).

Choosing an approach that works is the way forward

You may be wondering where do we go from here? How do we change our culture so that it puts staff wellbeing front and centre?

As you’ve probably learned from experience, one-off wellbeing workshops and tokenistic gestures don’t offer needle-moving improvements to staff wellbeing and school culture. What schools looking to improve staff wellbeing need is a change in vision and a new strategic plan that takes staff wellbeing needs into account.

A people-centered vision is the only way forward.  

Our Well-Led Schools Partnership Program supports leaders and staff in creating and executing a shared vision of wellbeing for their school.

Our approach focuses on investigating and uncovering the current challenges impacting staff wellbeing, training leaders and staff in what it takes to build a positive school culture, and designing a tailored School Wellbeing Action Plan that outlines a clear path toward improved staff wellbeing and school culture.  

Conclusion

It couldn’t be clearer that school leader and staff wellbeing is critical to supporting student life and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, for many schools, it has taken the pandemic to see this clearly. The impact of COVID-19 has further exposed the high rates of school leader and staff stress and exhaustion, and the influence poor staff wellbeing can have on school culture and student learning. We must act now to reduce the risk and impact of staff burnout and mental health challenges that school leaders, staff (and students) face in this climate.

The wellbeing of our school community is tied to the mental health of our leaders, teachers, staff, students, and families and must all be considered in our approach to improving wellbeing. 

System and school-level actions must prioritise and monitor school leader and staff wellbeing.

This is done by providing necessary school resources, relevant initiatives, and support options that address the complex needs of the school community. But also through establishing a school culture that values and normalises positive relationships, encourages teacher wellbeing and mental health, and ensures staff and student engagement is paramount. 

Episode 2: Well-Led Schools – Wellbeing Works! The research supporting the impact of staff wellbeing

References

  1. Lester, L., Cefai, C., Cavioni, V., Barnes, A., & Cross, D. (2020). A Whole-School Approach to Promoting Staff Wellbeing. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 45(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2020v45n2.1  
  2. Cross & Falconer (2021). School Leaders’ And Staff Wellbeing Is Critical For Student Success: https://www.isq.qld.edu.au/media/1kli1et2/school-leaders-and-staff-wellbeing-is-critical-for-student-success-2021.pdf 
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  14. Greany, T., & Earley, P. (2021). School Leadership and Education System Reform: Edition 2: Bloomsbury Publishing.
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Turner, K. & Thielking, M. (2019). Teacher wellbeing: Its effects on teaching practice and student learning. Issues in Educational Research, 29(3), 938-960. http://www.iier.org.au/iier29/turner2.pdf

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