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Staff wellbeing – some things to ponder

  • Teachers
  • Wellbeing
  • Workload
Adrian Bethune 05 September, 2018

Whatever line of work you’re in, the bottom line is, happy staff work better and miserable staff don’t. So, it makes sense for bosses to care about how their staff are feeling. From a selfish point of view, it pays dividends to have a happy workforce, and from an altruistic point of view, who wouldn’t want their staff to be happy? But why do some schools have high levels of teacher satisfaction, whereas others seem like dire places to work? This blog will share insights into what factors contribute to a happy workforce and how you can put the research into action.

Happiness is the key

Numerous studies show that when staff are happy at work they’re more productive, more creative, have less time off sick, are better at their jobs, and have happier customers. The simple fact is, happier companies tend to be more profitable. Simply just being in a positive mood is good for our work. One novel experiment showed that doctors given a sweet before seeing a patient made faster and more accurate diagnoses than the control group. It seems that when our minds are primed to be positive we do our jobs more effectively.Positive psychologist, Shawn Achor, explains in his book The Happiness Advantage, that “positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.”

OK, so schools don’t have ‘customers’ per se, and they certainly don’t make profit. And the ‘productivity’ of a teacher is debatable because many of our teachers do lots of work that doesn’t really benefit children! But, research does show that healthier and happier teachers teach better, and tend to have students with higher marks. So, it’s clear that there is an advantage to having a staff that feel good but what exactly can schools do (or not do) to foster wellbeing at work?

Staff wellbeing – what gets in the way?

Let’s first look at the factors that get in the way of staff wellbeing. In his book, The Social Neuroscience of Education, Prof. Louis Cozolino cites some of the main factors that contribute to teacher burn-out:

Unreasonable time demands
High-stakes testing and accountability
Excessive paperwork
Low participation in decision making
Lack of autonomy

Anyone involved in working in a school should be looking to reduce or eliminate these factors where ever possible. Some will be easier than others, granted, but there is still lots that can be done. Using this ‘Workload reduction strategy’ created by Schoolwell would be a good place to start. This is not just SLT’s responsibility, we should all be working towards this goal if we truly value happiness at work.

Staff wellbeing – what supports it?

In addition to proven ways that foster wellbeing, below are just a few of the factors that can help foster a happier staffroom:

Autonomy – when teachers are treated like trusted professionals, able to make decisions and enforce change where they see fit, it empowers staff and reduces burn out. Studies show that worker autonomy is fundamental to job satisfaction.Schools need to ditch the micro-management and create a culture of trust and professionalism.

Pleasure and purpose – this is less about work specifically, and more about life in general. When we experience high levels of positive emotion and we are engaged in activities that we find meaningful and purposeful, we are said to be ‘flourishing’. So, the more we can enjoy our jobs and find them purposeful (often by recognising how we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves and by having a positive impact on young people) the better.

Feeling part of a tribe humans are an innately tribal and social species. Relationships are themselves a crucial part of psychological wealth, without which you cannot be truly rich” according to happiness experts, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. When schools harness this and make teachers feel like they are part of a team and, dare I say it, part of a family, they can really boost wellbeing at work. Good schools foster positive relationships.

Going forward with a wellbeing team

What I propose schools need is a properly functioning wellbeing team. By this I do not mean a group of people that are tasked with doing superficial things that have no long-term impact on staff wellbeing, whilst the school is still a haven for chronic stress. A properly functioning wellbeing team will look at the fundamental ways the school operates and runs, and examine how to make life better for everyone.

Wellbeing survey

DiagnosisFirst, you need to know what your starting point is, so a well-designed staff wellbeing survey is essential. Organisations like the Education Support Partnership, Happiness Works, and Nourish The Workplace all offer staff wellbeing survey services. Your school will need to pay for these services but increases in staff happiness will pay dividends later on!

Group work – Next, you need to go through the results in small groups and start the conversations about what’s working well (celebrating successes is just as important as recognising the weak spots!) and what’s not going so well.Make a list of the areas that appear to be detrimental to staff wellbeing.

Prioritise – Once you have identified the problem areas, next you need to prioritise maybe three to five key areas that you’d like to work on improving first. Ask yourselves: does it feel important? Is it easily achievable? Do we have the energy to tackle this now? Does it require support or resources that are not available in the room?

Action PlanThen you need to create an action plan. Choose some actions that are easy to achieve. Quick-wins help for a sense of progress and mastery. Choose some actions that are important to the staff. Choose some actions that staff have the energy and appetite for working on. Decide who is going to work on the various ideas and set some realistic deadlines.

Review and repeat Then keep coming back to your action plan and update it to show progress. Revisit old ideas, and you can add new ones. Check in with staff to see if improvements are palpable and have made any difference to their working lives. A year later, survey wellbeing again and continue the process. The whole process should be one of empowerment and agency.

Final thoughts

Staff wellbeing is serious business. Too often people deride training sessions in schools on the topic but that suggests to me a problem with poor training andpossibly a lack of understanding of what actually helps foster happiness at work. If schools truly want to look after their staff, they have to make wellbeing a priority. Improving your working life at school is not easy and it takes effort. It also means investing time (and some money) to get it right. But the question is, can we afford not to?