7 Ways To Promote Staff Mental Health And Wellbeing To Create A Mentally Healthy Workplace

Teaching is regarded as one of the most stressful professions in Australia, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified these feelings for staff. 

With as many as 75% of teachers and school staff reporting impacted mental health in 2022, it should be considered part of the school leader’s core responsibility to cultivate a supportive workplace environment aimed at both preventing and preserving staff mental health and wellbeing.

This information indicates that regular validation and acknowledgment of the challenges may prove valuable for staff. 

Discussing and seeking support for mental health shouldn’t be a taboo, especially not in an occupation where so many are impacted by it. 

This article will cover:

  • The impact of long term stress
  • How unmanaged or unaddressed mental health challenges and burnout affect teachers and staff
  • Ways to promote mental health and wellbeing in schools

Long term stress and the impact on mental health

Chronic stress (stress experienced regularly over time) ultimately leads to teacher burnout and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. 

A study based on Australian school teachers reported that teachers are more depressed and anxious than the average Australian. With more than half suffering from anxiety and nearly one-fifth feeling depressed. Teacher burnout is a growing problem across schools worldwide as teachers struggle to manage their workload and growing expectations amongst staff shortages, pandemic-related anxieties, lack of opportunities to connect with their peers, and the ever-growing list of implications resulting from the COVID-19 in our schools.

With these statistics on the rise, it makes sense that our approach to managing staff mental health and wellbeing needs to change.

How burnout and stress affect our teachers and staff

Burnout can cause a slew of physical and mental symptoms that impact staff’s ability to bring their best selves to work, take on new ideas and participate in any change strategies. 

Since many cases of burnout stem from work, if the causes of stress remain unaddressed, it’s likely to build frustration, anger, and resentment in your staff. Staff who are burnt out are more likely to call in sick and less likely to feel engaged with their work and to collaborate amicably with others. 

When teachers are stressed and on edge, they have less patience in the classroom, they’re less able to access their compassion and empathy, and they won’t be as in tune with their student’s needs. This can be a recipe for disaster, especially when managing students and classrooms. 

Additionally, when any of our staff feel burnt out they’re more likely to have a negative perception of their workplace, which lowers their job satisfaction and may encourage them to seek work elsewhere. 

If we don’t do something now, teacher shortages will become a widespread problem no school leader wants to add to their already endless to-deal-with list.  

Promoting mental health and wellbeing in schools

“A mentally healthy workplace is one that protects and promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for stress, depression, and anxiety, for the benefit of the individual, organisation, and community.” (Beyond Blue)

A responsible workplace should make every effort to reduce stigma, build self-awareness in staff and encourage help-seeking and support options. When we review our processes, adapt our leadership, and work with our staff to prevent teacher burnout and mental health challenges, we see a decrease in disruptive behaviour among students and greater general stability in the classroom, as well as increased student motivation and academic commitment. Teachers with lower stress levels and burnout symptoms and classes equipped with high coping skills have been associated with enriched student outcomes (4). 

Following are 7 ways that leaders and staff can begin to create a school culture that emphasises staff health and wellbeing. 

7 ways to create a mentally healthy workplace

1. Improve understanding and awareness of mental health in the workplace 

The first step in taking away the stigma associated with mental health challenges is to build awareness around the topic and normalise discussing it in the workplace. The sooner we do this, the more confident staff will feel in seeking out support. 

  • Understand yourself, your wellbeing, and your mental health as a leader: A global understanding of mental health begins with leaders being aware of their own signs of stress and distress. This self-awareness can assist in recognising this in others.
  • Provide and engage in professional learning opportunities which outline signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and suicide risk factors (3) 
  • It is important to know the difference between stress and mental health conditions such as anxiety. Learn to recognise the signs of stress and burnout in our staff 
  • Reduce stigma.  Arrange for someone to share their personal experience of a mental health condition and their recovery. This could be a Beyondblue ambassador, or you may have an employee or manager willing to speak openly and share their story. (1)

2. Recognise the stressors

Consider what stressors trigger these stress behaviours in our staff. For example, are staff stressors linked to their personal lives, or are they work-related? Speak to staff and find out.

  • What factors might be impacting staff wellbeing and mental health? 
  • Complete a school scan, conduct a staff survey, and have discussions to find out what the common stressors are
  • Recognise when staff members might be “at risk.” When determining if another staff member may need extra support, consider the pervasiveness, frequency, persistence, and severity of their signs of distress. Considering this can help inform your actions, which might include speaking with them and assisting them in seeking help or managing their work related stressors. (1)

When is it essential to talk to our staff? 

  • When you are concerned about their mental health and wellbeing
  • When their work performance or relationships are being compromised 
  • The person is a danger to themselves or others
  • You hear they are feeling suicidal or planning to end their life

3. Talk about the stress, promote and normalise mental health 

Since impacted mental health is a common issue in education, leaders must make an effort to openly discuss mental health challenges and promote support options to their staff.

  • Talk openly to staff about stress, burnout, or anxiety and reassure staff that their privacy will be respected. 
  • Respect any staff’s decision not to speak about their mental health, but leave the door open for further discussion.
  • Pay attention to employees who are behaving or talking in ways that are unusual for them. Approach them with sensitivity and respect to enquire about what is happening.
  • Use meeting times to reiterate the importance of staff wellbeing and follow through with actions that match.

4. Have a Stop Reflect Act conversation

Leadership mental health literacy involves the ability to have a conversation with staff members who are facing a challenging time.

STOP: Make time to ask the person how they are going. Pause and listen.

REFLECT: Remember it is not your job to offer a diagnosis or counseling. Providing emotional support is about being willing to talk about what is going on, how the person/group feels, and their options for support. If there are concerns: consider timing, space, policies, and professional boundaries before acting.

ACT: There are many ways to act, including:

  • Acknowledging feelings and experiences
  • Offering practical support within your professional boundaries. Ask if there is anything you can help with
  • Encouraging self-care
  • Promote seeking professional support and encouraging staff to explore their options for seeking help. Identify trusted people they can talk to or ways of accessing support services such as Employee Assistance Programs, General Practitioners, or helplines.
  • Follow up and follow through.

5. Respond to reduce the stress

Ask yourself, “Are there specific circumstances, situations, or experiences that I, as a leader or the leadership team, could change that would reduce the influence of any, or all, of these stressors on staff?”

  • Develop leader capability in positive, proactive leadership. Consider what practices may need changing to meet the needs of staff.
  • Review school scan or survey results and consider ways to adjust leadership initiatives or school directions to respond to staff needs.
  • Offer emotional support to those who disclose personal information or are “at risk.” 
  • Develop a whole-school wellbeing action plan to respond to key areas that staff report as the top stressors in their workplace (i.e., lack of direction or communication from their leadership team)
  • Develop a personalised wellbeing action plan for any staff members who have disclosed concerns about their mental health 
  • Develop and implement return to work or stay at work plans tailored to staff’s needs for any staff requiring support to stay at work. (1)
  • Seek written permission from the staff members to speak to their treating health professional about how the school can support their recovery 
  • Provide clarity on the staff member’s role, responsibilities, and any reasonable adjustments made in the workplace to support their recovery (i.e., time off to attend appointments, modifying working hours)
  • Communicate why some adjustments have been made to the rest of the team in a way that protects the staff member’s privacy. Discuss with the employee how and what they would like others to be told
  • Seek support from any human resources specialists, occupational rehabilitation providers, or Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that might be available
  • Keep in touch with the employee during periods of leave and support them on their return.
  • This might include a return to work plan developed collaboratively and regular problem-solving meetings between the staff member and their leader.

6. Up-skill staff on ways to look after one another 

Training staff in mental health awareness can help them recognise the signs of their colleagues struggling. Often, staff turn to one another when they’re feeling frustrated or stressed out by a situation at work, so, upskilling staff on ways to support each other can help build a culture that promotes and encourages wellbeing. 

  • Use multiple channels to regularly provide staff with information about mental health and wellbeing services and support networks, including those provided by external organisations such as beyondblue
  • Build employees’ skills and confidence to approach someone they may be concerned about. (1)
  • Promote free resources to help your employees have a conversation if they’re worried about a colleague. Make these available on your intranet and display posters or other materials around the workplace. (1)
  • Establish a peer support or mentoring program for staff.
  • Offer team-building activities to support group dynamics and productivity
  • Ensure adequate backfilling of roles or redistribution of work when employees are out of the office or away on leave and communicate to staff. Consider swapping tasks within the team to avoid other colleagues taking on an excessive workload.
  • Create a discrimination-free workplace with a zero discrimination policy for anyone suffering from a mental health condition. (1)

7.  Increase awareness of your school’s commitment to creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Clearly communicating your commitment and plans to create a mentally healthy workplace ensures staff are aware of the support options available to them. Additionally, promoting this commitment externally can also help attract potential new staff. 

  • Share your staff wellbeing action plan with staff and seek their input. Continue to promote your progress, both internally and externally, and seek consultation from staff. Focus on the specific benefits for your employees, business, and the community. (1)
  • Provide information to all employees on their specific roles and responsibilities relating to mental health. This might cover areas such as work health and safety, discrimination, privacy, and taking care of their own mental health. (1)

Conclusion

When stress remains unaddressed for a long period of time, it eventually compounds, leading to burnout and exhaustion. Leaders should be acutely aware that we’re living in a time where staff and teacher stress is at an all-time high and that there are clear steps they can take to support them during this challenging time. 

The key to supporting staff mental health lies in creating a workplace that feels psychologically safe for staff to come to, even when they’re stressed.  It isn’t about tokenistic approaches but rather changing how we view, speak of, and address mental health. By taking the seven measures mentioned in this article, leaders can begin to build a culture where staff health and wellbeing are embedded in their school’s core values. 

Upskill leaders and school staff in ways to take better care of their wellbeing through staff development workshops and leadership coaching sessions that will equip you with knowledge, skills, and tools to help you nurture a school culture that invites and promotes wellbeing for all.

Sources

  1. Ten Things You Can Do To Make Your Workplace Mentally Healthy – Beyou 
  2. Planning for Wellbeing: mine, yours, ours – BeYou
  3. Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace – Beyond Blue Heads Up
  4. Teacher Training Can Make a Difference: Tools to Overcome the Impact of COVID-19 on Primary Schools

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