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Staff well-being… Climate Change

  • Wellbeing
Sam Hart 11 July, 2019

We need to look at staff well-being the same way we look at climate change.

I started working in schools over nine years ago and have since witnessed the slow decline in staff well-being. In that same time frame the threat to our planet from climate change has also increased. When looking at these two issues, I believe we can use the same tactics to fight both.

Recently, we have seen a spike in attention on climate change with news articles and documentaries doing so much to highlight the threat facing our planet. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase leading to rising temperatures which then leads to warming oceans, melting polar ice and glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme weather and climate events. This affects millions of people around the globe and is the leading cause of wildlife extinction.

So, what’s being done about the environmental crisis? Governments are waking up to the threat of global warming (whilst perhaps a little distracted by other issues…). On 1st May the government approved a motion to declare a “climate change emergency” with the hope that this will inspire other leaders around the globe. Many businesses are also now putting measures in place to minimise their carbon footprint.

However, still is much to be done in terms of outlining practical steps that countries and organisations need to take to prevent further damage and begin healing the planet. Sound familiar? Does it perhaps remind you of the approach OFSTED or your senior leadership team take towards staff well-being? They are very much aware of the problem but not quite sure where to turn or what policies to put in place that will help. In respect to both climate change and staff well-being, many of those in a senior position genuinely want to make a difference and are putting well-intentioned tactics in place. Unfortunately, often this happens without consulting the very people that need help. 

When looking at climate change, it’s clear that another approach is needed. Fortunately, we are seeing that the solution lies with the individual rather than top-down change. Many scientists agree that we are the ones that can make a difference without being instructed and without consultation. There are so many ways we all can help reduce our impact on the planet. We now know that small changes to lifestyle such as not using the car for short journeys, ditching plastic and reducing waste can really help. The biggest realisation in the last 12 months is that our food choices have the biggest impact. Meat and dairy products are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a major cause of biodiversity loss and rainforest loss. The amount of water and resources that is needed for animal agriculture, and the gases released as a by-product, means that everyone is now being encouraged to move away from animal sources to a more plant-based diet. By doing so we can have a far lower impact on the environment. Added to this is the fact that more and more research is showing how a plant-based diet is so much better for our mental and physical health.

This is where the comparison with staff’s well-being comes in. An issue that is close to breaking point, with leaders trying their best to help but with another much more effective solution available.

Teaching is one of the most stressful professions in the UK and recently we have seen a steady rise in the decline of mental health among those working in schools (including pupils). Much like with climate change, people are starting to stand up and say enough is enough. 

On the one hand, following the voicing of concerns over workload and accountability, policies are being put in place to help teachers. OFSTED have announced they want to do more to support teachers and school leaders with the pressures of the job including reducing workload, simplifying accountability and helping improve behaviour management. Headteachers also are understanding their obligations to create a healthy work/life balance by enabling all these approaches. Unfortunately, many of us working in schools are failing to see any changes being made and life for teachers and TAs goes on much the same as it has.

And so, on the other hand, we can take a different approach. Just like the individual outlook we can take towards climate change, we need to realise that we all must take responsibility too. Changes to our daily habits can have such a huge impact and only we as individuals can begin making these changes. In the same way that choosing paper straws over plastic can help (although only 0.03% of the oceans are polluted with plastic straws compared to over 40% with fishing nets), making better choices in our routines can help as well. Considering what we eat, how much we move during the day, and how much time we devote to our inner well-being will all have an impact as well. 

We know that we should increase the amount of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans in our diet. These foods are linked to a whole host of positive health outcomes including; reducing cholesterol; lowering blood pressure; promoting natural weight loss; lowering risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke; and reducing stress and boosting mood. These whole food plant-based ingredients also happen to be the ingredients that are best for the planet. We simply need to increase the volume of these ingredients and minimise the amount of sugary and/or processed foods in our diet in order to drastically improve our well-being.

3 Quick Food Fixes 

1) Swap all white refined carbs with the fibre-rich, wholegrain varieties – wholegrain rice, pasta and bread and eat as much as you like of them. Carbs are not the enemy.

2) Add beans to your day every day. Use chickpeas in your curry and salad, use kidney beans in your chili, add butter beans to your soup and add lentils to your Bolognese.

3) Stick to water, coffee, tea and the occasional wine for your drinks. Ditch fizzy drinks, even the “diet” or “zero” varieties.

When it comes to our physical and mental health, the benefits of exercise are well-documented but where we do need to see a shift in focus is away from the gym culture and all-or-nothing approach. We know that just 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise will contribute to improved health and well-being but we also need to remember that we shouldn’t be stationary for the rest of the day. It doesn’t have to be hours in the gym or pounding the pavements, just as long as we’re moving more throughout the day. That could include yoga, dance classes, gardening or choosing walking over driving. We should take inspiration from those living in the “Blue Zones” – areas around the world that are home to the people who live the longest and happiest lives. They don’t go to the gym or enter marathons, they simply move throughout the day. Again, a few small tweaks to our day would lead to a profound improvement in our well-being.

3 Quick Fitness Fixes 

1) Follow a beginner’s yoga video for 10 minutes in the morning before school.

2) Join a local sports club. Team sports are the best because you also enjoy the social benefits.

3) Hit those 10,000 steps every day. If you haven’t by the time it gets to bedtime, pop your headphones on and go for a walk around the block. You’ll hit your target and it’ll prompt a better night’s sleep.

Finally, we have the inner well-being area to address. There is mounting research that shows us how powerful short, simple mindfulness and meditation practices can be in reducing stress and anxiety and improving feelings of positivity, happiness and empathy, as well as increasing focus. When talking of mindfulness, we are put off by visions of having to sit cross-legged for hours chanting mantras. But in reality, we all have the capacity to be mindful and explore its effects. You only need 5 minutes a day and that could be in the morning, during lunchtime or in the evening before going to bed. Just set a timer, take a deep breath, then breathe normally and focus on the air entering and leaving your body. If you get distracted (which will happen many times!), just bring your attention back to the present and to your breath. 

3 Quick Floaty Fixes 

1) Download “Insight Timer” and meditate every morning before work. Start with just 1 minute and build from there.

2) Every time you drink your hot drink, take a deep breath. Look at your mug, smell it, be thankful for it and then enjoy. Don’t do anything else, just enjoy.

3) Eat mindfully. At every possible opportunity, stop all other tasks while eating. Take a deep breath before eating and then take your time. This simple change could well improve your physical health as well.

Focusing on these three aspects of our life will not only provide us with benefits on a personal level but also benefit those around us as well, our pupils, our colleagues and our family and friends. 

Whatever your role in a school, know this: you do have the power to combat stress by making better food choices, moving more throughout the day, and dedicating time in your day to address your inner well-being through mindfulness meditation. Just like you can be a part of the solution for climate change, you can be part of the solution in improving your health and well-being. OFSTED and senior leaders have a duty and a role to play, but it is up to you to take ownership of what is in your hands. We cannot afford to let our health deteriorate until things get better. Instead we should empower ourselves with the knowledge and the habits that will optimise our health. If we act now, we can save the planet and we can save our mental and physical health. 

Sam is a qualified primary school teacher with over 10 years of experience working in a range of different schools, from inner-city Birmingham to private schools in Spain. In September 2018, he and his partner formed TeachStrong, a company whose mission is to empower school staff with the tools they need to take ownership of their health and well-being. They are the UK’s only well-being training provider to offer resources covering nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, sleep and community. Visit their website to find out more: You can also find them on social media @teachstrong_