Let’s Talk About Wellbeing: How Schools Get it Wrong

a woman holding a cup of coffee
No, free coffee during twilight sessions is not wellbeing.

Wellbeing can be defined as being comfortable, healthy or happy – and for many schools, they’re getting this massively wrong with piecemeal pleasantries that masquerade as positive approaches to wellbeing instead of genuine care for their staff.

The term ‘wellbeing’ has been stolen

Browse ‘edutwitter’ for more than a few minutes and you’ll see plenty of people talking about wellbeing – and rightly so. It’s massively important. The idea that we’re happy, healthy and comfortable humans should always be our top priority, and it should be the priority of every leadership team in every school.

Many teachers, however, appear to have been sold a lie as to what ‘wellbeing’ actually means. In real terms, a school addressing staff wellbeing is working to reduce workload, restore work-life balance and ensure proper support systems for mental and physical health. In place of this, however, most teachers are offered potentially well-meaning but ultimately empty gestures.

“Free food and drink will be provided for teachers at parent’s evening tonight!”

“We’re providing more after-school CPD than last year, and we’re providing free coffee!”

“All of our NQTs get a lovely welcome pack with a school mug, a hot chocolate sachet, a bath bomb and a welcome card from the headteacher.”

This stuff sounds great, right? The problem is, a free mug and the occasional platter of free sandwiches has nothing to do with actual wellbeing. None of this addresses workload, work-life balance and it doesn’t offer genuine mental and physical support to teachers who are struggling. The sobbing NQT in week 3 couldn’t care less about a free coffee and the bath bomb is probably gathering dust in the bathroom because they haven’t had the time to use it.

How do teachers reclaim wellbeing?

A tricky question – but one that always relies upon teachers and staff making their needs known as well as supportive leadership that listen to those concerns.

If someone is struggling mentally, there needs to be someone to listen to concerns, offer support and offer guidance instead of threatening sanctions, ‘capability’ and an obligatory referral to occupational health (the latter being massively supportive but often means the school have brushed their hands of the matter).

If someone is working themselves to the bone every night and barely treads water, someone needs to step in and help that person find the balance they need.

If staff are constantly running on the hamster wheel of ‘assessment, feedback, assessment, feedback’ without pause, leadership need to consider who that cycle benefits and why they’re collecting that data in the first place. It’s not a marker of a good teacher and it’s not a marker of good education, either.

Refuse to be tricked (even accidentally by well-meaning leaders) into thinking that the free lunches, free coffees and free pastries have anything to do with wellbeing. It’s paving over the cracks of a much bigger problem below the surface: the reality is, teachers do not have enough support, time or resources.

What does good practice look like?

Again, a tricky question because many schools simply don’t have the resources (usually spare cash…) to make much of what they need a reality. However, there are fantastic examples of schools out there doing the right things to ensure their staff are looked after – and here are some examples of positive steps most schools could consider:

  • Appoint a ‘mental health’ leader – a dedicated individual who keeps wellbeing on the school’s agenda.
  • Work with staff to create a mental health policy – ensure that it is embedded across the school and all staff and leaders are aware of it.
  • Initiatives to reduce workload/excessive work. Limit weekend/evening emails and work toward sane marking policies that are informed by staff.
  • Consider ring-fencing time to do the ‘busy work’ in addition to PPA time (some schools simply don’t timetable Friday afternoons for example…).
  • Create a space for staff to take time out – and not a barebones staffroom that’s cold and uninviting.
  • Ask SLT make themselves open to concerns and worries, listen responsibly and act upon the concerns of their staff with genuine care.

This is not an exhaustive list and not all of them are applicable to every setting. At the very least, having a mental health leader and a detailed wellbeing policy is arguably a must-have for all schools. Once those are in place and taken seriously, the rest should follow.

But don’t let anyone tell you a free bath bomb is going to solve all of your problems. Otherwise, we’d never be out of Lush.

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You might also want to read:
Wellbeing: Where’s Your Happy Place?

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