A year ago, in May 2019, the World Health Organisation recognised Burn-out as an “occupational phenomenon” within its International Classification of Diseases, stating that: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Over 50% of U.K. teachers have a diagnosed mental health condition, according to a recent study by Leeds Beckett University. As educators and their students begin returning to school against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and all the anxieties which it engenders, the issue of educators’ mental health and the potential for workplace stress and burn-out, is more pertinent than ever.
Here are six meaningful initiatives which Senior Leaders can implement to positively impact teacher mental health and wellbeing, and help prevent burn-out of their staff:
1. Survey staff anonymously about the levels and sources of any mental stress they experience due to work. Ask for their thoughts and ideas about how best to tackle the causes. In the current COVID-19 landscape, listening to colleagues’ understandable concerns, validating their feelings, and trying to address their fears and anxieties, will be intrinsic to maintaining staff wellbeing.
2. A No Marking or Minimal Marking policy. Clearly, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and possible transmission of the virus on books and other surfaces, may in itself lead to the adoption of this policy for the time-being at least, although reducing excessive marking workload is also a practical post-pandemic strategy in terms of promoting better teacher mental health.
3. Carefully consider the value of meetings being scheduled, whether face to face or virtual. Too many schools, and employers in general, are guilty of holding meetings for meetings’ sake, seemingly overlooking the reality that some information could be just as effectively conveyed via email. In addition, giving some thought to the relevance of the topic to potential invitees and veering away from mandating attendance if the meeting content is not pertinent to an individual’s role, will pay dividends. A more discerning approach will reduce workload, as well as serving to enhance goodwill, morale and wellbeing.
4. Provide students and staff with access to a school counsellor, and implement a school-wide mental health curriculum to help support students, as well as targeted mental health interventions for those children who are particularly affected. Such measures will help mitigate the impact of understandable student stress and anxiety upon their teachers and other school staff. In addition, consider holding mental health and wellbeing workshop(s) for staff. (Take a look at our free weekly Mental Health & Wellbeing Tip for Teachers, and current and upcoming mental health skills programmes for students and staff.)
5. Consider a “No Emails in the Evenings &/or on Weekends Policy”, deciding on the evening cut-off point after consultation with all staff. To be effective, this needs to be a policy which everyone adheres to – even, and perhaps especially, members of Senior Leadership. Schools can be all-consuming places to work at the best of times. The increasing expectation in recent years that teachers must check their email outside school hours and effectively be available to colleagues or parents 24/7, is not conducive to maintaining balance and good mental health.
Clearly, there will be occasions when urgent messages need to be conveyed outside schools hours, especially during the COVID-19 period. Nonetheless, we all need regular time to switch off from the demands of work, and by Senior Leaders actively encouraging this and leading the way, it sends a clear message to staff that Work-Life Balance is being prioritised. It would be important to convey the policy to parents, explaining that they can expect a response to their emails within a specific number of working days (two to three working days might work best), thereby managing parental expectations also. The following link is a brief but thought-provoking piece on the subject, and although it is not based on schools, there are lessons which school leaders could learn from their counterparts in industry, particularly those within companies where employee wellbeing is prioritised: https://hbr.org/tip/2018/05/no-really-dont-email-your-team-on-the-weekend
6. Implement a Parental Behaviour Policy if parental aggression towards staff is an issue in your school community. This includes verbal as well as physical aggression. Some schools have begun to implement such policies in recognition of the mental health impact of various types of abusive parental behaviour towards their staff. Just as NHS workers are protected as far as possible by clear expectations around their treatment by members of the public, the mental health of staff within the education sector would be positively impacted by knowing that there are clear guidelines in place governing acceptable parental behaviour towards them.
Outlined above are six common sense approaches to solving key issues affecting teacher mental health in school communities, through the pandemic and beyond. It is in no way an exhaustive list but would serve as a solid starting point. Please see the Appendix for links to further related resources and articles.
As students and staff return to school amid the ongoing backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened issues around student and staff mental health will no doubt be brought to the fore, with the need for problem-solving on the part of school leaders in order to preserve their educators’ mental health and wellbeing, to empower them to continue teaching and supporting their students effectively. This blog post has suggested six practical approaches to mitigating the impact of workplace stress upon teachers and school staff through the COVID-19 era and beyond.
The pandemic presents an uncertain and evolving situation, bringing with it unprecedented challenges for schools, as well as the opportunity for creative and compassionate solutions to promote the mental wellness of educators and their students.
Our next blog post will explore the potential mental health impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents, as we begin offering insights and strategies to help mitigate the effects of this unprecedented global situation on the mental health of children and young people in our care.
Ava S. Hasan
Founder of Mentally Well Schools www.mentallywellschools.co.uk An online platform of free mental health and wellbeing resources, paid downloadable skills-based programmes and support for busy schools.
P.S. If you have something to say in response to this post, please make a comment below. We’d welcome your thoughts!
Note: This blog post is published in slightly amended form on Medium: www.medium.com/@ava_63437/6-things-schools-can-do-to-support-teacher-wellbeing-mental-health-through-covid-19-and-beyond