Who is responsible for staff wellbeing?

The Hot Debate: Who Is Actually Responsible for Teacher and Staff Wellbeing?

With teacher wellbeing and mental health concerns on the rise, staff wellbeing is a hot topic in education right now. And rightfully so! Teacher and staff wellbeing directly impacts student engagement and learning outcomes, school culture, and staff retention rates. 

I’ve sat in many rooms with teachers and leaders and often, during our wellbeing consulting sessions, a debate breaks out about who is responsible for wellbeing in our schools. 

Is it the leaders?

Is it the staff?

(Or is it our Government, Department or Education Office’s responsibility?!? But more on that another time!)

There are fair arguments on both sides, and it’s important for everyone to take a moment to step into the others’ shoes to truly understand where the frustration is coming from. Likewise, it’s equally important for both sides to do their part. 

We are better when we work together!

This article will cover:

  • The debate: whose responsibility is staff wellbeing?
  • Leadership responsibility
  • Staff responsibility
  • Joint responsibilities
  • The verdict 

Whose responsibility is staff wellbeing?

As we begin the debate –  our teachers may argue that their frustration lies in the leadership team’s lack of awareness or attentiveness to staff needs as they push more administrative agendas. Leaders counteract with a rebuttal and express their frustration that teachers can’t seem to get everything done and always unhelpfully gossip about leadership directions. They know that sometimes, staff talk about this behind closed doors, never uttering a peep to their principal or team leader regarding their concerns. They go home and discuss it with a loved one – but nothing more is said at work, breeding more frustration. 

The leadership team continues to express their irritation and punch home their point.  They feel they have tried to implement a few well-meaning wellbeing activities or relationship-building events; they might have suggested in a staff meeting or two that their staff access their “6 free EAP appointments.” They feel like they encourage all the right things, do their best to find staff to replace sick teachers and provide explicit instructions to their staff, but nothing much changes.

The problem with both of these sides of the debate is that all those involved don’t appear to be working together or towards any high-leverage actions. The responsibilities of all involved are not outlined, communicated or agreed upon. The actions are not mapped out, and the expectations are not clearly defined. In order to move forward as one, leaders and staff need to work together to put staff wellbeing and school culture front and centre with a clear set of responsibilities for all. 

So, how do we do that?

Leadership Responsibilities 

As many teachers and staff stare down the barrel of burnout, they are crying out for help from their leaders or the powers that be. Begging for the workload to decrease, craving better communication, clarity, and time to get things done – It is clear that school leaders have a key role to play in fostering and maintaining staff wellbeing. The research clearly outlines the positive impacts that healthy and well staff have on school outcomes. From more mentally healthy staff, higher staff engagement, increased staff satisfaction, right through to increased engagement of our students, and improved learning outcomes. Ignoring these potential benefits is a critical mistake of any school leadership team. 

Ethically, school leaders have a duty of care to their teachers and 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 that aims to preserve and prevent the deterioration of staff wellbeing. Particularly in this pandemic climate, schools have a duty to seek more options for their people, provide more support and do things differently. After all, our staff won’t forget if their school failed to support their mental health and wellbeing during this time of crisis. And it’s not a good look for future culture-building endeavours. 

Teachers and staff’s feelings of safety, inclusivity, and support are paramount. This includes (probably most importantly) the legal obligation to provide a mentally and physically safe environment for all staff.  It is a legislative requirement that departments and schools create a safe and secure working environment for their staff. Calling out the elephant in the room here, and almost too important to gloss over, schools and leaders must make sure as many preventative measures are in place to reduce, prevent and mitigate any physical or mental harm to our teachers at the hands of students, parents or co-workers. Perhaps the biggest emphasis here is that whilst it is widely acknowledged and understood that some students require additional support to behave safely and respectfully due to several compounding factors – our teachers and staff require just as much (if not more) support to move past any incident where their safety has been compromised. This may involve a total overhaul of the school’s expectations and consequences for any incidents where teachers and students are put in harm’s way, in addition to suitable (incredibly supportive) follow-up processes for any victims.

At the very least, school leaders are responsible for the following foundational practices for staff wellbeing:

  • Implementing workplace legislative requirements
  • Ensuring the safety of all staff
  • Ensuring adequate follow-up and support options for staff who have had their safety, health or mental health compromised (not just from the education office or department – from the school)
  • Seeking consultation and feedback from staff to find out their needs and requirements for improved health and wellbeing 
  • Providing a framework, policy of staff wellbeing action plan to address the health and wellbeing needs and requirements of their staff 
  • Role model wellbeing – leaders have a responsibility to lead by example, recognising that their actions speak louder than words 

Teacher and Staff Responsibilities 

Teachers and staff, meanwhile, also have a role to play. Ultimately, it is up to staff to take care of their own physical/mental health and safety, too. Our work (especially teaching) constitutes, and almost consumes, a huge part of our lives, both in time and energy.  So we must learn how to set boundaries, speak up and manage the additional stress that comes from a career in education. 

Without stating the obvious, staff are responsible for complying with the health and safety conditions laid out by the school, and education office of the directorate. Just as school leaders are responsible for maintaining and advocating for staff safety, school staff must also report when their daily work is impacting their safety, wellbeing and/or health. This may involve filling in the relevant risk reports, seeking the support of an employee assistance program, asking for advice from governing bodies, etc. Alongside this, adhering to formal requirements, such as taking set breaks during working hours and only working core hours, participating in voluntary initiatives offered by the school, and getting involved with any and all practices aimed at caring for health and wellbeing is advised. If what you are looking for or what you need isn’t on offer – speak up and ask for it. 

Knowing how to take care of our own mental health is vital if you want to ensure longevity in your career and reduce any risk factors for burnout. Managing your stress levels, maintaining positive social interactions, and asking for help when needed are all practical actions to support staff wellbeing. 

In a profession like teaching and especially during a pandemic climate, some staff may need to double-down on the self-care practices that help them get back to baseline. 

At the very least, school staff are responsible for the following foundational practices for improved staff wellbeing:

  • Adhering to/following workplace legislative requirements
  • Reporting any breaches of safety, health, and wellbeing or injuries in the workplace 
  • Accessing Employee Assistance Program or external support options (where EAP is not appropriate) when safety, health or wellbeing is impacted
  • Providing respectful feedback for school improvement 
  • Seeking support from health or mental health practitioner for any instances of chronic stress, mental health or physical health concerns or ailments. 

The Answer? Joint Responsibility 

If it isn’t obvious enough by now, staff wellbeing is certainly a joint venture. Just as individual staff have every right to work in an environment that prioritises their people, they too must do their part to make their workplace a place worth showing up to every day. We expect the same of the classrooms we run – the teachers provide the scaffold for a harmonious learning environment, but the students also play an important role. So it should be no different when it comes to our faculty. 

In addition to the foundational contributions by leaders and staff already mentioned, other areas of joint responsibility include:

Note: You will see that all responsibilities fall neatly into the 6 PERMA(H) Model areas which is a key element of my approach in schools.

The Verdict

Ultimately, when it comes to maintaining health and wellbeing in the workplace, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between leaders, teachers, and staff. While school leaders should establish the foundations, policies, procedures, and initiatives to promote wellbeing and ensure positive school culture, staff need to elect to put up their hand and get involved in the programs offered and offer feedback and solutions. 

The mental health and wellbeing of school staff must remain a top priority for school leaders. Without these solid foundations, the buy-in of new initiatives, ideas, changes, and strategy is less likely.  Likewise, the functioning of a school, a harmonious school culture, and environment must be at the top of a teacher’s priority list. This means cooperating with the school’s health and safety conditions and taking steps to care for their own health and wellbeing inside and outside of the workplace. 

Are you ready to set your school up for success and build a rock-solid culture, boost teacher engagement and achieve better whole-school outcomes?

Book a discovery call to learn how I can help you lead whole school improvement of staff health and wellbeing through my Leadership Coaching services!

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