The Top Rated Initiatives To Improve Staff and Teacher Wellbeing (And How to Address Them)
With staff burnout and stress on the rise, school leaders are regularly looking for ways to prioritse staff wellbeing and provide initiatives that enable their staff to feel valued, cared for, and supported. Unfortunately, the mistake many well-intentioned leaders make is that they often provide and promote support options and initiatives that don’t meet the needs of their staff.
The result of these well-intentioned efforts is that staff still appear exhausted, burnt out, and in some cases, frustrated or negative. Leaders and wellbeing committee members are left scratching their heads wondering why their planned “Wellbeing Week” or a cancelled staff meeting didn’t result in happier staff.
After spending most of this year conducting and reviewing staff wellbeing surveys with schools across the country, I have begun to track some emerging themes in the data. Staff are reporting what their top stressors are and what they suggest will alleviate or reduce their workplace stress.
And spoiler alert – what staff are calling out for isn’t more morning teas or suggestions to access their EAPs. Instead, they are suggesting a change in how staff wellbeing is viewed, promoted and handled in the workplace.
This article will cover:
- The impacts of stress and burnout on the mental, emotional, and physical health of school staff
- Common workplace stressors
- Top rated helpful initiatives to improve staff wellbeing (and tips to address each)
The impacts of stress and burnout on the mental, emotional and physical health of school staff
When chronic stress goes unmanaged, and burnout remains unaddressed, it has implications that affect a person’s whole wellbeing. Staff are pushing through workdays low on energy and motivation, experiencing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and find themselves unable to shut off at night and get good rest because their nervous system is in overdrive. Little by little, unaddressed chronic stress chips away at every aspect of an individual’s health and wellbeing.
When reviewing the data captured across schools using my Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey, x% of the staff surveyed are reporting that they are experiencing burnout (or multiple symptoms of burnout). More alarmingly, x% are reporting that they don’t feel well mentally and emotionally and x% are indicating that their stress is impacting their physical health.
Workplace Stressors: The Straws Breaking The Camel’s Back
What this article highlighted was that workload related problems and administrative tasks are weighing down staff and a leading cause of stress, and managing student behaviour is an ever growing challenge, likely due to the disconnect imposed by the pandemic disruptions.
Leading causes of workplace stress are being amplified by the pandemic alongside a lack of adjustment or adaptation in the way we lead our school and make decisions. This is all compounding in teacher frustration as they struggle to keep up with the expectations placed upon them whilst navigating staff shortages or ongoing health concerns for themselves, their peers and their students.
Addressing teacher stress with the right initiatives
Supporting our staff’s health and wellbeing requires more than just a blanket approach to staff wellbeing. Whie traditional wellbeing related initiatives might have worked in the past, they alone are not enough to haul our staff back from the brink of burnout.
The best approach to improving staff wellbeing and culture is to weave it into the fabric of our school’s values. Culture building strategies that make up a well-rounded approach to wellbeing must be combined with strategic and targeted adjustments to the way we lead our schools; this approach should speak to our staff, our peers and the way we make decisions.
Our Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey asks staff what they believe would be the most helpful initiatives to improve staff wellbeing at their schools. The top reported suggestions include improved communication with the leadership team and between staff, a more focused approach to staff wellbeing, more focus on student behaviour, reduction of workload and team/relationship building opportunities.
Improved communication with the school’s leadership team and between staff
Harnessing the ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important skills leaders and staff can have. Effective communication and effective leadership are closely intertwined. When asked which initiatives would be valuable at their school, many staff across schools suggested more/improved communication with the college leadership team and between staff.
Across the comment sections in the surveys, respondents provide feedback, including the challenges associated with unclear direction, the discrepancy between messages depending on the leader, a lack of transparency, changes to processes or decisions without notification, last-minute communications or requests, no communication, unanswered communication (i.e., emails) between staff and with the leadership team.
The current research emphasises how the pandemic has led to staff craving more certainty and clarity at work and from their leaders. This may require a refocus on our communication channels and transparency in schools, as well as open discussions with staff to identify where their communication challenges lie.
Tips to improve communication include:
- Ensure staff consultation on decisions impacting them
- Communicate in more ways than one: written, verbal, training, presentations, during staff meetings, surveys, etc
- Consider leadership coaching or staff professional development opportunities with a focus on communication
- Plan more time for staff to collaborate in teams and across areas in the school (i.e., staff meetings, professional development, and in strategic or school focus teams)
- Optimise meetings: Prepare the agenda, engage attendees, and pay attention to how much energy is put into the meeting’s takeaways.
A more focused approach to staff wellbeing
It’s been rare to come across a school where the approach to staff wellbeing is clearly defined and known by all staff. In many schools, departmental directions are heavily focused on instruction and student wellbeing but rarely on staff wellbeing. Unfortunately, the wellbeing of staff is considered an afterthought or something that staff should be responsible for sorting out on their own. Furthermore, leaders aren’t necessarily equipped to recognise the signs of burnout or mental health struggles in their staff, let alone have the skills to address these sensitive concerns.
A more focused approach to staff wellbeing would ideally put measures and policies in place that protect staff wellbeing and reduce stressors.
My survey data reflects that many staff may require additional support, validation, and access to treatment to manage their health and wellbeing during such a complex time in the world and in schools.
Tips to focus your approach to staff wellbeing include:
- Take an inquiry approach to staff wellbeing and be curious about understanding the root causes of teacher and staff stress, first by asking staff using an anonymous staff wellbeing survey
- Talk about the stress and promote and normalise discussing mental health
- Create and implement a Staff Wellbeing Action Plan that addresses the priority areas impacting staff wellbeing
- Upskill leaders and staff in strategies to address and manage stress and mental health and how to support others struggling with theirs
- Explore and implement my 6-step approach to improved staff wellbeing and school culture. This approach incorporates elements from Helen Timperley’s Spiral of Inquiry model and Positive Psychology’s PERMA(H) model to create a narrow and focused approach for addressing staff health and wellbeing in a meaningful way.
More of a focus on student behaviour and wellbeing
Managing challenging students and behaviour was another theme emerging across survey responses – a large portion of staff across multiple schools mentioned that their stress is contributed to by the management of difficult students. Additionally, many staff suggested an ‘improved or more focused approach on student management, behaviour and/or wellbeing’ as a helpful initiative to improve their wellbeing at work.
Across the short text sections, many staff express frustrations about a lack of consistency with student management practices, limited skills, capacity, and experience managing major behaviours, and a perceived lack of leadership support and follow-up in classrooms.
Tips to focus on behaviour include:
- Focus the school’s efforts on up-skilling teachers in classroom management, positive behaviours for learning, restorative practices, and trauma-informed practice
- Develop clear responses to major and minor behaviours to support staff and build clear boundaries
- Develop a systemised leadership response to student management – define steps that enable leaders to appropriately support staff with student management. Ensure staff have collaboratively helped design these steps and responses
- Involve all staff in the process of developing systems to restore the relationships after major behaviours
- Implement a coaching and mentoring or peer support model to support key staff with classroom management
A reduction in workload
Workload and administrative tasks were two other major callouts contributing to staff and teacher stress. Teacher workload typically includes communication, curriculum planning, and delivery, marking, feedback and assessment, data management and collection, and managing student behaviour. However, this workload is made heavier by staff shortages, the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership expectations, and a lack of time management skills. With schools often focusing too much on catching up on lost time and we risk leaving behind our most valuable resources – the teachers struggling to keep up with it all.
Tips to reduce or balance out staff workload and administrative tasks
- Identify where the staff workload challenges lie. Survey staff about their workload challenges and/or hold structured professional discussions to find solutions
- Regularly review staff workloads, cut out unnecessary work, and re-consider additional projects, tasks, initiatives, or expectations when staff report workload challenges. Encourage staff to discuss issues so solutions can be developed
- Adhere to legislative requirements and encourage staff to do the same: Ensure staff have and take appropriately timed and regular breaks, provide sufficient information and instructions regarding tasks and procedures in a timely manner
- Allocate additional time to complete core business tasks, delegate administrative tasks to administrative staff and/or narrow your school’s focuses to replace currently used time to address the core administration requirements (i.e., re-consider meeting agendas, booked professional learning opportunities, and non-priority tasks)
- Effectively upskill teachers in productivity. Provide training and support them to prioritise tasks, give warning and guidance on urgent jobs and define their performance expectations.
Team/Relationship building opportunities
According to Positive Psychology’s PERMA(H) model, relationships impact our wellbeing, and that’s why it’s crucial that we also focus our attention on this top suggested initiative.
The pandemic interrupted our ability to get together for in-person activities and socialisation, making it challenging to build upon relationships between staff and leaders. What we’re seeing as schools return to in-person learning after a period of lockdowns is a constant race to keep up with mounting workloads and no time left over to gather and cultivate relationships.
Some schools face challenges with cliques forming, gossip, and conflicts between staff going unresolved. Team relationship building isn’t just about planning after work drinks or a “scavenger hunt” during week 0; it’s also about smoothing out the nuances affecting relationships on a daily basis.
Social support in the workplace, as well as perceived support from the leadership and greater staff, appears to have a protective effect against mental health difficulties and a decline in health and wellbeing. The best way to do this is to regularly bring teams and groups of staff together to create shared experiences and common reference points and stories, mostly during work hours. (Haas and Mortensen, 2016).
Ways to do this:
- Find ways to schedule shared experiences inside work hours (in lieu of a meeting)
- Schedule regular out-of-school activities (dinners, group sporting events, interesting new hobbies, or exploring the interests expressed by staff)
- Explore team-building activities
- Regularly check in with one another
- Manage conflict where appropriate
- Create a coaching and mentoring model where staff can work together across teams
School Partnership Programs
These are just some of the strategies I recommend to schools in the ‘Well-Led Schools’ Partnership Program, and they’re tremendously helpful if it’s what your staff are calling for. But, I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach, so before taking any action, it’s important to survey staff to identify the stressors and get their feedback on favoured initiatives. Once you have this information, you can forge a clear path forward tailored to your school’s needs and goals.
Through the ‘Well-Led Schools’ Partnership Program, I can support you (from start to finish) in building a personalised and responsive, needle-moving approach that results in staff buy-in and a thriving school culture. Our people thrive when given the environment and tools to do this, so if you’re done offering one-off wellbeing workshops, and you’re ready to commit to a deep-rooted transformation of school culture, be sure to get on the waitlist for our next program opening!
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