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Staff Wellbeing or Self-care Overload?

1 September 2018

Recently I read an article in the Times Educational Supplement by a teacher lamenting the introduction of staff wellbeing programs.  “No!” he shouted in despair, “not another thing to do!”  For him, the well-intentioned initiatives of mindfulness training and yoga classes meant yet another agenda item for his already crowded calendar.

His outburst reminded me of the hilarious picture by Amber Boardman, one of this year’s finalists for the Archibald Prize.  It shows a woman sitting in the bath, religiously following all the wellbeing fads:  a foam bath, candles, a glass of wine to relax, a rolled-up yoga mat, a blender with a healthy green super drink, a good book to read and paintbrushes for some recreational painting.  Clearly a woman at risk of “Self-care exhaustion”, which is the humorous title and ironic message of the painting.


Teacher burnout and attrition, however, is a very real problem, and therefore staff wellbeing is rightly seen as a priority these days.  It is very illuminating to read scholarly literature and research on the topic and contrast it with the often faddish attempts of schools to address the issue.  Here are some of the emergent themes and factors that have been proven to contribute to staff wellbeing.

Support networks.  Staff usually build up a personal network of friends and colleagues in the staffroom and beyond, but it gets harder to do this, the higher up you are in the hierarchy.  It is also harder for single people, or for people who have relocated and moved away from family and friends, to build up a support network outside of school on which they can call.  Professional networks beyond the boundary of your own school, therefore, are important for all teachers, but of particular significance for teachers falling into any of the above categories.  If they encounter problems at work, their isolation is likely to hit them worst.  Any proactive support or practical advice a principal can give their staff will be of value to their wellbeing.

Professional autonomy.  Being allowed to work autonomously is a great contributing factor to wellbeing.  People who are given the opportunity to work autonomously instead of being closely monitored or micromanaged develop a strong sense of competence through being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them in a climate of trust, thus gaining the confidence to develop their own style of teaching or of leadership.  Especially when somebody is new to their respective role, time needs to be allowed for staff to develop such competency. 

Practical support.  It fosters trust in a community if practical support is provided to reduce teacher workload.  For example:  putting in place sufficient secretarial support for members of the leadership team to allow them to focus on strategic purposes.  Taking administrative tasks away from teachers by employing admin staff for laborious tasks such as correspondence or photocopying.  Where possible, have some flexibility in staffing schedules to allow for child or age care issues.

Emotional support.  We all get tired and frustrated sometimes, and sometimes we need to vent our emotions. If I were a principal, I would much rather have my staff vent their emotions to me than take them out on their team members or, worse still, their students.  As an experienced leader of a variety of teams in academia and boarding, I know that, if you are a leader, it is never about you, as a wise principal recently reminded us at a conference.  It is always about those you lead, and as leaders of staff we are the shepherds and guardian angels of those we have appointed.  Being, at times, the punchbag for emotional outbursts of your staff, listening to them, trying to address the causes of their frustration or at least helping them to regulate their emotional response to stressful situations, is not easy. Neither is the courage to confront emotionally charged conversations.  It takes broad shoulders, confidence in yourself, patience and a big heart.  Such wisdom and the emotional maturity not to take things personally (and not to retaliate) comes with experience and is often the hardest part for a first-time leader to learn.  It certainly did not come easily to me either.

Recognition.  Recognition of your staff’s strengths and talents can take various forms.  For some teachers, the occasional pat on the back or ‘thank you’ note will suffice.  Others will benefit from targeted opportunities to develop their strengths further in professional development courses.  Making these available equitably to those who are interested has been proven to be a significant retention factor.  The flexibility to allow your staff to play to their strengths is also crucial.  Sometimes, as I have said previously in my blog on strengths-based leadership, it is important to mould job descriptions to fit the person, rather than mould the person to fit the job description.  If I remember with gratitude one thing from my teaching and leadership experience, it is the exhilarating happiness that comes from being able to do what I thrive on, what I am good at and what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning and go to school with a spring in my step.  Conversely, taking intrinsically rewarding tasks away from someone has been scientifically proven to lead to burnout and inefficiency because it deprives you of oxygen and leads to a dislocation between who you are and what you are asked to do.  A principal who fosters intrinsic motivation in their colleagues by allowing them to be who they are (in terms of their professional strengths, preferences and ethical values) will lead a happy school because their staff’s happiness will have a knock-on effect on the students.  Intrinsic motivation is also closely related to high self-efficacy.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a good overview and is closely related to the findings of robust research.  Self-determination theory has identified autonomy, competence and relatedness as the three basic psychological needs underpinning wellbeing.  Resilience theory lists as the three key factors of resilience the matching aspects of a sense of agency, competence and a strong support group.  When risk factors (excessive workload, emotional strain) jeopardise a teacher’s wellbeing, individual protective factors such as an innate self-efficacy, altruistic disposition towards students and intrinsic motivation can mitigate their effects; however, when such high work ethic is not accompanied by a strong support network, or when that support is withdrawn and autonomy and resulting sense of competence are lost, these high-performing teachers or leaders are most at risk of burnout and depression.

There is nothing wrong with the odd yoga treat or the complimentary fruit bowl in the staffroom, to the contrary.  Wellbeing, however, is a much more comprehensive issue and deserving of the development of professional strategies to address it.  Teaching is an emotional business, and from having been very directly involved in pastoral care for students in day and boarding schools I know well the toll it takes.  As professionals, we deal daily with serious behavioural and mental health concerns of those in our care, counselling students and parents, but unlike for health professionals (psychologists, counsellors) no emotional support mechanisms are in place to ‘care for the carer’ in a school setting as a matter of routine.  This is another issue to be mindful of when dealing with emotionally exhausted staff and offering them compassionate understanding.

(In a previous blog on school communities I have stressed the importance of caring relationships, based on W.H. Auden's interpretation of the Renaisssance painting The Fall of Icarus: here.)

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