In her online column for the TES, Natasha Devon MBE, the Department for Education’s Mental Health in Schools Champion, suggested that ‘To improve the mental health of young people, we should start by tackling stress among teachers’ – This message certainly seems to have resonated with my network and, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t agree more. It’s no secret that I’m currently overcoming an anorexia relapse so now, more than ever, I recognise the absolute sense in what Natasha suggests.
There are some pretty simple steps we can take, many of them right away, which I’ve seen work well in schools, colleges and other settings which I’ve set them out below as I know that many of you will have read Natasha’s piece and been moved to action, but unsure what you can do next. Please add your own ideas and experiences by commenting below too (you don’t need to login to do so).
One thing to note is that many of my suggestions apply to ALL school staff and not just teachers. I spend a lot of time working with people like behaviour support assistants who take on a huge emotional load but are often very poorly supported. So if you’re willing to take some of these ideas on board, please consider your whole staff and not just those who are based in the classroom.
1. Break down the taboo of talking about mental health
This is by no means a unique problem in schools, but with high prevalence of mental health problems and a complete reluctance to talk about them, we are struggling with a toxic mix. 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.
2. Ensure no teacher has to address potentially triggering issues without appropriate guidance and support
There are some issues which I believe we absolutely must 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 but also themselves safe as well.
You may find useful:
(Myself or colleagues from the PSHE Association can provide INSET on these topics – email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss)
3. 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 often little energy has been put into ensuring that staff are aware of these avenues of support. 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 and
- 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.
4. 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.
5. Say something!
…and if we spot those warning signs, we need to bring up the subject with our colleague and help them access support if it’s needed. We are often terrified about having ‘the conversation’ but whilst it might feel initially awkward, it can be a huge relief to both you and your colleague once the topic is broached.
You may find useful:
6. Put in place thorough, supportive return to work procedures
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.
You may find useful:
7. Providing the education and means for staff to 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 on an INSET day sharing the evidenced five ways to wellbeing can make a huge difference to staff as can highlighting simple ways to help them to look after their physical health (which always underpins good mental health).
Think too about whether you are doing all you can to enable staff to promote their wellbeing using these simple strategies. Some 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 good sleep hygiene
These ideas are few and basic but hopefully will prove a good starting point for your thoughts and actions. We cannot revolutionise the profession overnight and remove the stress of working in school, but there are many small steps that our school leaders can take to support the wellbeing of staff.
If you have any good practice or personal experiences to share, please do so by commenting. Good luck and remember the aeroplane analogy: we must always put on our own oxygen mask before helping others.
If you require additional guidance or INSET in any of the topics touched upon here, email email@example.com to discuss further.