The PERMA(H) Model for Workplace Wellbeing

Are your staff struggling to keep their heads above water due to the ever-changing nature of education, the pressure of departmental expectations and the growing problem of staff shortages?

Introducing new school initiatives is a challenge when your staff are on the brink of burnout. Whether staff are constantly calling in sick, struggling to bounce back or you are experiencing pushback on new ideas, the pressure of an increasing workload and challenging students can stop progress in its tracks.

An effective approach to wellbeing requires schools to think outside the box. A mere focus on supporting staff and their personal wellbeing is not going to be enough to influence staff, student and school performance. With educators and staff working in one of the most stressful professions, schools need an approach that plans for and considers the multiple elements required to increase both personal wellbeing but also staff psychological safety in the workplace.

This article will explore:

  • The interplay between personal and workplace wellbeing
  • The foundational pillars of the Well-Led Schools approach
  • An introduction to the PERMA(H) model and its components
  • Our 6-step approach to improving staff wellbeing and school culture

The Staff Wellbeing Sweet Spot: The Interplay Between Personal and Workplace Wellbeing

Effectively addressing staff wellbeing is best achieved through recognising and supporting our staff’s personal wellbeing AND workplace wellbeing

A staff wellbeing approach that includes a focus on understanding and skill development for our people in ways to attend to the multiple dimensions of their wellbeing, as well as applying helpful coping strategies, fosters a sense of health, wellness and resilience among our staff.

Additionally, and most importantly, it is a school’s responsibility and duty to support staff with their workplace wellbeing. This requires schools to acknowledge and address key workplace risk factors and stressors and make decisions aimed at enhancing staff’s feelings of wellbeing at work.

But how do we do this?

Our Approach

As we craft a staff wellbeing framework that aims to address both personal wellbeing and workplace wellbeing, it’s crucial to draw upon wellbeing models and approaches backed by robust scientific research. 

Our Well-Led Schools approach incorporates:

  1. Positive Psychology’s PERMA(H) model
  2. The latest research in educational leadership
  3. Guidance from leading wellbeing organisations

Positive Interventions using the PERMA(H) Model

The PERMA Model was originally developed by Positive Psychology pioneer Martin Seligman. PERMA stands for five elements or components: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. (1)

Seligman determined that by focusing our energies on each of these pillars of wellbeing, we can feel more positive, resilient, and fulfilled personally and professionally. His research has found that the holistic focus on and attention to each of these elements was more likely to result in staff feelings of psychological safety in the workplace, leading to a greater likelihood of “thriving” or “flourishing” over simply feeling “well.”

The Pillars of the PERMA(H) Model

Positive Emotions

We know that people perform better in work and life when they are happier. When this is the case, their mood improves, and they are more optimistic and stress-resilient in general. When we feel this way, we experience less stress and increased energy to show up to work and get stuff done.

Finding ways to ignite more positive emotions in staff can range from building more awareness of ourselves and others, supporting our wellbeing and building resilience, expressing gratitude and appreciation, building perspective, developing emotional intelligence, nurturing relationships and more. 

Engagement

The mental state of true engagement was first studied in depth by a Hungarian psychologist, Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He discovered, in his years of research, that the secret to their optimal performance lies in an individual’s ability to enter the state of “flow” frequently and deliberately.

“Flow” is described as a feeling, a sense of competence and control, a loss of self-consciousness, and such intense absorption in the task at hand that they would lose track of time (3).

The key to fostering more engagement and supporting our people in achieving a sense of flow is to harness more motivation with job roles and opportunities that excite and inspire them. Whilst engagement is very personal and in many ways, reliant on our overall wellbeing, job/role satisfaction, workplace morale, culture and positive relationships and collaboration with our peers and school leaders are crucial factors in actively engaging our people and teams.

School leaders can engage their staff with targeted professional development opportunities, goal setting, coaching/mentoring, the provision of feedback and strength work. This can begin with finding ways to identify, use and apply their strengths. Martin Seligman and other researchers have noted that when work demands our engagement, such as using our strengths in new and innovative ways, we experience higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression. (2)

A great way to get started is to support staff in identifying their strengths through self-identification or the use of assessment tools like a VIA strengths assessment. Then, we find ways for them to use their unique strengths in their job roles through goal setting and feedback.

Relationships

Without meaningful relationships, collaboration is less likely, and without collaboration, it will be hard to see concrete outcomes or innovation in the workplace. Collective teacher efficacy is a necessity in a high-performing or high-growth school setting. Without a sense of connection, belonging, and trust, it is more difficult to achieve this.

Social support in the workplace and perceived support from the organisation as a whole appear to have a protective effect against mental health difficulties and a decline in health and wellbeing. This involves building strong relationships and trust amongst ALL staff but also addressing (and indeed preventing) any potential conflicts as they arise.

Strong relationships can be developed in several ways, from encouraging the development of relationships to creating opportunities that help maintain and strengthen them. At a very basic level, providing opportunities to regularly bring teams and groups of staff together to create shared experiences and common reference points and stories is a good way to foster a sense of connection and belonging. (Haas & Mortensen, 2016). 

A more leveraged approach requires trust to be established between leaders and staff and amongst the staff themselves. This requires us to mindfully move from the establishment of rapport to the development, maintenance and sustenance of trust (an in-depth process we support schools with inside of our Well-Led Schools Partnership Program). Additionally, a focus on building collective teacher efficacy through adopting or reviewing and improving a PLC approach or an inquiry/action research approach is a way to work towards instructional goals as a unified team.

Meaning

Creating a shared sense of purpose or establishing a vision (beyond the school mission statement) ensures clarity, understanding, and buy-in from staff. We all know that teachers, educators and staff are in education to make a difference – but sometimes, the cost of their hard work (workload, parent complaints, and student behaviour) can wear them down.

Uniting staff with a shared vision for where they are headed as a collective and reminding them of why they do what they do keeps their eye on the prize. They realise they are in this together – working side-by-side to make a difference. Without this reminder or a gentle nudge in the right direction, school staff can forget why they signed up for this in the first place.

To get started, it is worthwhile to review how well the school communicates its vision for the school culture more generally as well as any key strategic directions of the school. When staff lack clarity it can result in confusion and a lack of motivation. Without a plan of where you are headed and why, you risk sending your staff in multiple directions (or none at all!).  

Accomplishment

Setting goals and reaching them is motivating. Without clear direction, feelings of success, and affirmation from leaders, staff can lose interest and feel lost. Leaders can empower their people by setting goals regularly with their staff and taking the time to acknowledge and notice the wins – no matter how big or small.

Some staff need support to see their accomplishments – a leader who takes the time to notice and highlight these will help build the confidence and capacity of their team. Confident and capable teams are more innovative, collaborative, and loyal – and capable of better outcomes.

Focusing on staff strengths is a great place to start. This helps you recognise the diversity of skills, competencies, and experience of staff, which also acknowledges the strength of variety.

Health – A Recent Addition to the PERMA Model

Although this pillar wasn’t included in the original PERMA model it complements the other pillars, as our physical and mental health can have a big impact on our overall sense of wellbeing.

Many school leaders, teachers and educators come to me with plenty of ideas for improving school or classroom outcomes, yet they seem unable to maintain their energy or the motivation to keep going. As we dive a little deeper, we can see how poor physical health, chronic and unmanaged stress, burnout and mental health struggles can impact their ability to see the results they desire at work and in their personal lives

We have very little control over the health of our staff, but we can promote and encourage our people to look after themselves. By creating awareness, removing the stigma of mental health challenges and fostering a culture of openness and vulnerability we can begin to relate better to our people and understand what they’re experiencing while offering compassion and empathy. 

Training staff in ways to recognise and manage chronic stress or burnout is another crucial step schools can take to support their staff’s health and wellbeing.

Download and display the PERMA(H) poster

Conclusion

The PERMA(H) model teaches us that wellbeing is complex and layered. We must work to enrich each of the 6 areas in order to feel balanced and well-rounded and to increase the likelihood of our staff reporting a sense of psychological safety.

In order to affect real change at your school, you must be willing to take an approach that addresses the very foundations of success. If your staff aren’t feeling motivated, engaged, and accomplished, it is very difficult for them to show up each day and give it their all. 

The health and wellbeing of staff is a crucial component to consider when evaluating your whole-school performance and why you may be missing the mark. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Therefore, it is in every school’s best interest to support every member of their staff in a way that fosters a sense of community and togetherness and supports their individual needs.

A 6-Step Approach For Improved Staff Wellbeing and School Culture

My 6-Step approach to improved staff wellbeing and school culture takes into account each of the 6 areas outlined in the PERMA(H) model and seeks to provide schools with solutions to boost these areas of wellbeing for all staff. 

Step 1: Scan Your School – Discover which elements of PERMA(H) to explore first through a Staff Wellbeing Survey and conversations with staff. Involving them in the process of change is key for boosting a sense of trust and collaboration which, in turn, improves relationships and promotes positive emotions.

Step 2: Establish a Culture of Wellbeing: Beginning With a Co-created Vision for Staff Wellbeing – Begin to co-create a vision alongside staff that embodies the values and behaviours you want your them to adopt so you can nurture a sense of engagement and meaning for staff.

Step 3: Agree on the Joint Responsibilities of Staff Wellbeing – With a clear understanding of expectations staff efficacy increases, relationships improve and engagement becomes more sound. 

Step 4: Upskill and Train Leaders and Staff in Effective Ways to Impact Wellbeing and Culture – Provide staff and leaders with useful training that helps them better care for their own health and wellbeing and the wellbeing of their colleagues and peers. 

Step 5: Tailor a ‘Wellbeing Action Plan’ For Your School – Accomplish your school goals with a plan that outlines the priorities and responsibilities of leaders and staff as well as the actions the school will take to keep the momentum going. 

Step 6: Follow Through on Your Wellbeing Action Plan and Check In On Your Progress – Assess and celebrate improvements and accomplishments and identify areas still requiring attention. 

In our Well-Led Schools Partnership program, we support schools through every step, weaving in ideas and concepts backed by the science of the PERMA(H) model. 

Download your FREE copy of our 6-Steps PDF guide here!  

Episode 4: Well-Led Schools – An Integrative Approach to Wellbeing: Introducing Positive Psychology’s PERMA(H) Model

References

1. Sutton, J. (2016). Positive Psychology in the Workplace: Thank God It’s Monday. https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-workplace-labor-of-love/

2. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. Seligman (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press

3. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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