Why Wellbeing? The Ripple Effects of Staff Wellbeing on Students, Culture and School Outcomes

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

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 and, at times, inconsistent or flippant, 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, this approach prolongs the ineffective impact this can have on students, school performance, and outcomes. 

This article will cover:

  • The growing problem of stress and burnout in schools
  • Why schools should embed a focus on wellbeing into their strategy
  • Factors influencing staff and student wellbeing in schools and why your wellbeing framework should consider them over a mere focus on “wellbeing” only
  • The importance of leading our schools with wellbeing in mind

The Problem

Anyone who works in education knows and hears of the growing staff wellbeing challenges in some schools across the country. Without even looking at the research findings, many of us have experienced the effects of teacher stress, burnout and impacted mental health in our schools firsthand. This is especially evident as we wave goodbye to our teachers and staff in what feels like droves, or find ourselves scrambling to fill positions from a relief register as our staff increasingly take time off due to work-related pressures.

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). 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. 

Studies show that teachers, in particular, report some of the highest rates of psychological stress. The Black Dog Institute ran a national survey of more than 4000 teachers in 2023 and found that 52% reported moderate to extremely severe symptoms of depression and 60% reported feeling stressed (compared to 12% and 11% of the general population, respectively).

We survey staff from schools nationwide and our findings are not too dissimilar. On average, 67% of staff report experiencing high levels of daily stress, 56% report feeling burnt out or experiencing multiple symptoms of burnout, and 36% disagree when asked if they feel well mentally and/or emotionally. Important to consider, however, is the varying reports from different school staff. Some rates of these statistics are much higher or lower depending on their school and their experiences at work.

A New and Strategic Approach to Focusing on Wellbeing 

More and more recommendations are made to focus on staff wellbeing in the news, on social media and in wellbeing resources. As school leaders, we gravitate towards consuming this information and advice for a number of reasons – to better support our people, to retain them, to improve school culture or to elevate our school’s performance. 

Many leaders decide to focus on staff wellbeing because they know they need to, they know it will help and they want to provide the best working environment for their people. 

However, many will lack a firm understanding of WHY and HOW to embed a Staff Wellbeing Framework that actually works and is capable of transformations. Without this understanding, their attempts to improve staff wellbeing will be well-intentioned but potentially unsuccessful.

Supporting your staff’s wellbeing has the potential to create a high-functioning workplace culture that significantly boosts school performance and student outcomes. This can be achieved by concentrating on the key areas that truly impact school success, 

Factors Affecting School Performance: 8 Influences Associated with Staff Wellbeing and School Culture

There is a well-established and evidenced correlation between staff wellbeing and student academic achievement and school performance. 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 educators intentionally use strategies to support their own wellbeing, there are flow-on effects in their teaching practice and student learning (28).

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

This evidence suggests that focusing on staff’s personal and workplace wellbeing can enhance school and student outcomes. 

Adopting an approach to wellbeing: A word of caution

Effectively addressing staff wellbeing necessitates more than a mere focus on it; for optimal outcomes, a school should thoroughly examine, consider, and address certain key areas that are interconnected with and impact staff wellbeing and overall workplace culture.

Research indicates that optimising the following 8 critical areas makes schools more likely to experience flourishing student and school performance.

1. Staff health and wellbeing 

The state of staff health and wellbeing is an excellent marker of how our staff are faring and provides a good indication of how our students are as well. 

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). Additionally, the more burnt-out teachers we have, the more likely we are to see our staff report that they experience a mental health condition. 

Aside from the apparent impacts this has on our people, research consistently underscores the interconnectedness between staff wellbeing (including health, mental health and resilience) with student wellbeing. High levels of unmanaged workplace stress, burnout and mental health challenges of staff have adverse effects on students and school communities. 

Research shows that teacher and staff burnout is associated with increased student cortisol levels, suggesting that teacher stress can influence student’s physical stress responses (1, 5, 6). Good 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). 

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). 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.  

Key takeaway: A focus on improving staff wellbeing can positively influence student wellbeing, which has a positive correlation to the life and learning outcomes of students (26, 114-119)

2. Staff Satisfaction

When staff are satisfied with their job, it’s likely to positively impact  their engagement, commitment and performance at work. This can have a ripple effect on student wellbeing, behaviour, attendance, and educational outcomes (2).

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 and address them. This might include identifying top stressors experienced by our staff and reflections on school-wide processes (i.e., leadership, engagement and wellbeing). When we pinpoint and address the causes of stress in our schools, we can see an increase in commitment, motivation, and job satisfaction of our people (2, 14, 15,16).

Further, it is a school’s responsibility to introduce positive interventions and prevention strategies aimed at building a thriving or flourishing school community and bolstering workplace satisfaction. 

Key takeaway: An increased sense of job satisfaction is positively associated with staff self-efficacy, enthusiasm, motivation, commitment, and job performance. All of which go on to influence student wellbeing, behaviour, attendance, and educational outcomes (2).

3. Staff Morale and School Culture

Staff wellbeing is vital 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. 

Staff who perceive their schools as stressful or experience negative work environments are leaving their positions as they seek new careers or schools where the culture is more focused on wellbeing or where they are less prone to burnout.

Schools can work with their staff to identify and address key stressors, alongside implementing initiatives aimed at improving staff wellbeing. Studies show that a supportive, wellbeing-focused school culture can mitigate the risk of stress experienced by staff, help prevent burnout, and positively affect teacher job satisfaction and mental health (1, 9, 10, 11,12). A strong sense of workplace satisfaction and wellbeing is more likely to build a positive school culture. 

Key Takeaway: In schools where culture is perceived as positive, staff endorsement and retention rates are stronger (1, 13), which, in turn, creates an environment that is more conducive to student learning and school-wide performance. (124-139)

4. School Wide Relationships

Educators with negative feelings about their jobs or those with a lower sense of wellbeing have more difficulty forming positive relationships with colleagues, students and the community. Disconnection in a school has been shown to result in poorer academic and mental health outcomes for students (18). 

When relationships between educators 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-educator relationships (17). If stress is left unmanaged, it can create a cycle where teacher stress and student misbehaviour fuel each other. 

In a school where staff wellbeing is prioritsed and staff are not burnt out or mentally, emotionally and or physically unwell, there’s more room to form positive relationships with colleagues, leaders, and the entire school community (1,2). 

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. Strong relationships are the foundation of collaboration and collective teacher efficacy – both of which are essential in a high-functioning school.

Key Takeaway: Collaborative school environments enhance teacher morale, job satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. This enhances collective efficacy and the overall performance of the school (120-123, 129).

5. Staff Workload

Evidence suggests that school leaders and teachers are spending more time on administrative tasks than ever before. With little to no extra time to spare, the increased workload puts droves of school staff at risk of burnout. Furthermore, the mounting responsibilities of teaching not only affect those currently working in schools but also impact the attractiveness of the profession to those outside it. Studies reveal that teachers are more likely to leave or avoid the profession when they have concerns over their workload. (3)

Our school wellbeing survey data identifies workload and administrative tasks as leading causes of stress across most schools. In addition, staff shortages continue to impact stress levels as classes are split or canceled, putting teachers further behind in curriculum delivery and assessment. 

Addressing the issues of staff wellbeing is a joint responsibility. It’s up to the leaders to adapt school practices. At the same time, teachers should adjust their practice, improve time management, seek support, apply boundaries and provide respectful feedback and suggestions to the school when their workload is unmanageable.

Key Takeaway: Evidence suggests that strategic management of staff workload is pivotal for fostering learning, improving instructional quality, and ultimately enhancing both student and school performance (108-113).

6. Promotion of Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing

A responsible workplace promotes staff mental health and wellbeing. This involves reducing stigma, building resources in wellbeing management and coping strategies in staff and encouraging help-seeking and support options. 

When schools review their processes, adapt their leadership, and work with staff to address and prevent teacher burnout and mental health challenges, they can see a decrease in disruptive behaviour among students, greater general stability in the classroom, and increased student motivation and academic commitment. 

Key takeaway:  Staff with lower stress levels and burnout symptoms who are equipped with high coping skills have been associated with enriched student outcomes (4). 

7. Support of Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing

Promoting wellbeing is one thing, but effectively and genuinely supporting wellbeing is another. Supportive relationships between teachers and leaders are particularly important for staff wellbeing and job satisfaction. A school culture that embodies a supportive and empathetic approach to staff wellbeing opens the door for vulnerability, good communication, and connection between staff. 

Schools can support wellbeing with a wellbeing-focused approach to leadership. This includes the implementation of an effective Staff Wellbeing Framework, addressing and preventing key workplace stressors, relevant professional development opportunities and establishing wellbeing teams, procedures and policies.

Educators 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.

Key takeaway: Perceived wellbeing support in the workplace can lead to higher job satisfaction and commitment to the profession and workplace, which are key influencers on school performance. (2,19).

8. Staff Engagement

Burnout, stress, and fatigue affect teachers’ engagement, impacting the quality of their pedagogy (2,8). On the other hand, when the school does not work to actively engage its staff, their wellbeing can be negatively impacted. 

Students can sense when a teacher isn’t fully engaged in the classroom, impacting their perception of what’s expected of them. Educator 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)

Staff who feel well are more focused and engaged and have more energy, stamina, and enthusiasm in the classroom. Similarly, schools that are proactive in motivating and engaging their staff with capacity-building and leadership-led engagement practices see higher engagement rates. 

Key Takeaway: Staff engagement directly affects student engagement, which in turn influences learning and school and student performance (2,8).

Well-Led School Leadership 

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. 

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

Well-led schools acknowledge the vital link between staff wellbeing and student success, prioritising strategies that cultivate a healthy and supportive environment. By adopting an approach that focuses not only on “staff wellbeing” but also on addressing other important factors such as staff health, satisfaction, morale, workload and mental health, leaders create conditions conducive to positive school culture and student outcomes. 

Through promoting supportive relationships, managing workload effectively, and fostering staff engagement, schools establish a framework for collective efficacy and continuous improvement. By prioritising staff wellbeing, schools not only enhance job satisfaction and retention but also create an environment where students thrive academically and emotionally, ultimately leading to improved overall school performance.

Conclusion

It couldn’t be more evident that the wellbeing of school leaders and staff is critical to supporting student life and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic for many schools to see this clearly. The impact of COVID-19 has further exposed and exacerbated 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. 

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 new strategic plan that considers staff wellbeing needs.

A people-centered vision is the only way forward.  

Free Live Training: Learn About a Proven Framework That Works

Attend a free live training on how to embed a proven staff wellbeing framework to boost morale, reduce burnout and elevate school performance.

Discover the exact steps you need to take to earn staff buy-in and get your teams working collaboratively and productively towards improved school culture and performance using a tailored ‘Staff Wellbeing Action Plan’

The training will be held on Thursday, February 22, at 3:30 PM or 6:30 PM (AEDT – Syd/Melb)

Register below for the session that works best with your schedule!

adriennehornby.com.au/live-training/

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 
  3. Harvey, S. B., Joyce, S., Tan, L., Johnson, A., Nguyen, H., Modini, M., & Groth, M. (2014). Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature. Sydney: University of New South Wales. 
  4. Milfont, T. L., Denny, S., Ameratunga, S., Robinson, E., & Merry, S. (2008). Burnout and wellbeing: Testing the Copenhagen burnout inventory in New Zealand teachers. Social Indicators Research, 89(1), 169-177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-007-9229-9
  5. Naghieh, A., Montgomery, P., Bonell, C. P., Thompson, M., & Aber, J. L. (2013). Organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work‐related stress in teachers. The Cochrane Library. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD010306
  6. Stansfeld, S., & Candy, B. (2006b). Psychosocial work environment and mental health—a meta-analytic review. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 443-462. https://doi.org/10.5271/sjweh.1050
  7. Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological science, 13(2), 172-175. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00431
  8. Dabrowski, A. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing During a Pandemic: Surviving or Thriving? Social Education Research, 35-40. doi:10.37256/ser.212021588
  9. Collie, R. J., Shapka, J. D., & Perry, N. E. (2012). School climate and social–emotional learning: Predicting teacher stress, job satisfaction, and teaching efficacy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1189. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029356
  10. Dahlkamp, S., Peters, M., & Schumacher, G. (2017). Principal self-efficacy, school climate, and teacher retention: A multi-level analysis. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 63(4), 357-376. 
  11. Gray, C., Wilcox, G., & Nordstokke, D. (2017). Teacher mental health, school climate, inclusive education and student learning: A review. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 58(3), 203. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000117
  12. Malinen, O.-P., & Savolainen, H. (2016). The effect of perceived school climate and teacher efficacy in behavior management on job satisfaction and burnout: A longitudinal study. Teaching and teacher education, 60, 144-152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.08.012
  13. Cohen, J., McCabe, L., Michelli, N. M., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, practice, and teacher education. Teachers college record, 111(1), 180-213. 
  14. Greany, T., & Earley, P. (2021). School Leadership and Education System Reform: Edition 2: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  15. Kern, M. L., Waters, L., Adler, A., & White, M. (2014). Assessing Employee Wellbeing in Schools Using a Multifaceted Approach: Associations with Physical Health, Life Satisfaction, and Professional Thriving. Psychology, 05(06), 500-513. doi:10.4236/ psych.2014.56060
  16. Turner, T. (2019). Teacher wellbeing its effects on teaching practice and student learning. Issues in Educational Research,, 29(3), 938-960. 
  17. David Osher, Pamela Cantor, Juliette Berg, Lily Steyer & Todd Rose (2020) Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development1 , Applied Developmental Science, 24:1, 6-36, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650
  18. Bond L, Butler H, Thomas L, Carlin J, Glover S, Bowes G, Patton G. Social and school connectedness in early secondary school as predictors of late teenage substance use, mental health, and academic outcomes. J Adolesc Health. 2007 Apr;40(4):357.e9-18. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2006.10.013. Epub 2007 Feb 5. PMID: 17367730.
  19. Aelterman, A., Engels, N., Van Petegem, K., & Pierre Verhaeghe, J. (2007). The well‐being of teachers in Flanders: the importance of a supportive school culture. Educational Studies, 33(3), 285-297. doi:10.1080/03055690701423085
  20. OECD. (2013). OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. Retrieved from Paris: 
  21. OECD. (2014). TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning, TALIS. Retrieved from Paris: 
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  24. OECD. (2019). TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners. Retrieved from Paris: https:// www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1d0bc92a-en/index.html?itemId=/ content/publication/1d0bc92a-en
  25. Tschannen-Moran, M., Price, E., Nienke M. Moolenaar, H., & Gareis, C. R. (2015). Faculty trust in the principal: an essential ingredient in high-performing schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(1), 66-92. doi:10.1108/jea-02-2014-0024
  26. McCallum, F. (2021). Teacher and Staff Wellbeing: Understanding the Experiences of School Staff. In: Kern, M.L., Wehmeyer, M.L. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education . Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3_28
  27. Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 540–547. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760903157232

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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