SecEd’s resident mental health expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith turns her attention from pupils to staff and offers some simple steps to promoting staff wellbeing
Increasingly I’m asked about how schools can support the wellbeing and mental health of their staff. The fact that people even care enough to ask this question has me silently rejoicing, but of course, wanting to have an impact and know exactly what to do are two very different things, so I have pulled together some of the practical steps you could take in your school in order to have a meaningful impact on the wellbeing of the whole staff team.
Break down taboos
Working in a school is an undoubtedly stressful job and we need to be able to talk about and tackle those stresses head-on without fear of being seen as weak or needy.
We need to be able to share our anxieties and stressors and the impact our job is having on our wellbeing with our colleagues and line managers. Being able to be honest and upfront can help to ensure appropriate, timely support and prevent issues escalating. This type of change in culture and ethos can take time, but making an active effort to discuss mental health and wellbeing more openly as part of daily school life can quickly make a difference.
Twitter users might like to join in the #Teacher5aDay conversation which is a continuous discussion around teacher wellbeing and a great way to find like-minds.
There are some issues which we should address as part of our PSHE curriculum in order to fulfil our safeguarding responsibilities to our pupils. This includes issues like self-harm, eating disorders and abuse.
These lessons are very valuable to pupils but can also be incredibly difficult to teach, especially for staff with personal experience of the topics. The climate of silence in many staffrooms will make many staff feel they can’t or shouldn’t make personal disclosures about their current or past situations or experiences, so in many cases those staff who may find content triggering will feel unable to ask to withdraw for this reason.
However, we can ensure that all staff receive the appropriate guidance and training needed to tackle difficult issues confidently and sensitively and in a manner that will keep not only their pupils safe but themselves as well.
Signpost sources of support
Many schools have excellent sources of support that can be accessed by staff who are struggling with their mental health, but staff are often aware of these avenues of support already. Often there are remote or face-to-face counselling services that staff have a right to access but are completely unaware of. If your staff are entitled to support with their wellbeing make sure that they understand:
- What support is available.
- When they are entitled to it.
- How to access it.
- What they should expect when they do.
It is also helpful to share details of local and national support that is available – a poster in your staffroom or a page on your intranet will take relatively little time to put together but could make all the difference to a staff member in need of help and guidance.
Know what to look for
We are getting far better at picking up the early warning signs of mental health issues in our students, but how often do we look out for those signs in colleagues? You should be every bit as worried about a colleague who is suddenly eating/sleeping more or less or who is becoming increasingly socially withdrawn as you should be about a student in the same situation…
…and if we spot those warning signs, we need to bring up the subject with our colleague and help them to access support if it is needed. We are often terrified about having “the conversation”, but while it might feel initially awkward, it can be a huge relief to both you and your colleague once the topic is broached. The worst thing to say is nothing.
Supportive return to work
It is not uncommon for school and college staff to be absent from work due to mental health issues. The way in which the return to work is handled in these instances can be crucial to a full and lasting recovery. Line managers should be trained and supported in managing the return to work appropriately and sensitively.
Promote their own wellbeing
There are tried and tested ways of promoting our own wellbeing which many of our staff may be unaware of. An hour spent during an INSET sharing the evidence-based Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing (2008) can provide a solid basis for making small but meaningful changes. It can also help to highlight simple ways to enable staff to better look after their physical health (which always underpins good mental health).
There may be steps you can take as a school to support staff in promoting their physical and emotional wellbeing. Past schools I have worked with have supported staff wellbeing by:
- Providing staff with access to healthy meals.
- Making it easy for staff to participate in enjoyable physical activities.
- Having a good social secretary and a social events budget.
- Providing guidance on reasonable working hours and expectations.
- Teaching staff the basics of getting good sleep.
I hope you find some food for thought here and feel able to being the conversation at your school about how best to promote staff wellbeing. Doing so has an impact not only on staff, but inevitably on pupils too.
Mental Health Advice
Dr Pooky Knightsmith will be providing regular support and advice in SecEd. Her next article is due to appear on November 17. If there are specific issues you would like to see addressed, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @PookyH
Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing, New Economics Foundation (October 2008): www.gov.uk/government/publications/five-ways-to-mental-wellbeing
You can find further support for school staff on mental health of children and young people in Pooky’s online learning sessions.