Three ways to look after staff wellbeing

Almost 80 per cent of education staff experienced mental health problems because of work last year. 

The mental health of teachers has only recently been put under the spotlight. The focus on students prospering and being mentally well is, of course, usually the top priority for parents and carers. 

But the death of Ruth Perry, a headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, meant the wellbeing of education workers is now being treated more seriously. In December 2023, 53-year-old Perry died by suicide. The coroner later ruled that the stress and emotional strain of awaiting the results of an Ofsted report of her school played a part in her death. 

The coroner. Heidi Connor concluded her inquest by saying: “The evidence is clear in this respect, and I find that Ruth’s mental health deterioration and death was likely contributed to by the Ofsted inspection.”

Connor called for Ofsted officers to have clear guidance when it comes to noticing signs of distress in school leaders at the risk of causing further deaths.

Now, the emotional strain that so many teachers and school leaders face cannot be avoided. It is not just Ofsted reports that can exacerbate mental health problems. Factors such as low pay, maintaining a work life balance and pupil behaviour are just some of the reasons people in education can experience poor mental health both inside and outside the workplace.

Faye McGuinness, director of programmes at Education Support, said the findings from their Teacher Wellbeing Index required immediate action. 

She said: “Everyone deserves to be healthy and safe at work. Especially those who guide and inspire the next generation. Yet our findings show stress, depression and anxiety all remain at an unsustainably high level among teachers and education staff.”

McGuinness added that “no one can do their best work if they are emotionally and physically depleted.”

The Index found that 78 per cent of UK school staff reportedly experienced mental health symptoms due to their work in the last academic year of 2022/2023. 

These reports of poor mental health are not just limited to teachers already in their job. The National Foundation for Educational Research reported that around 12 per cent of early career teachers (those within the first five years of qualifying) left the profession between 2015-2020. 

It can be hard to take meaningful steps to improve school leaders and teachers’ wellbeing in the workplace. 

We have created a list of what can be done to improve the wellbeing of school staff. Some are big changes that will take longer to implement, and others can be put into practise immediately.

Create mindful spaces away from work

One of the ways education workplaces can reduce stress levels is to make sure there are dedicated spaces for employees to properly relax. After all, the NASUWT’s ‘Teachers in Mental Health in the UK’ survey found that the biggest concern for teachers in 2019 was their workload. 

These spaces don’t just involve putting a lava lamp in the staff room. Some people call them ‘peace corners,’ and they are spaces that provide staff mindfulness and relaxation. Of course, this is dependent on what schools can afford and what staff would like to be included. However, even the small act of holding sessions on managing stress can make staff feel understood as well as giving them that much-needed platform to de-stress. 

This is a better alternative to including ‘wellbeing days’ into the INSET timetable. These days have been criticised by education leaders and teachers for oversimplifying the constant journey of maintaining good mental health. As well as this, every one’s mental health is different so there will not be one day which will help everyone. 

Remember that these spaces are not an easy fix to mental health, and should be included in a wider strategy. 

Appreciate your colleagues

It may sound obvious, but truly appreciating the hard work of those around you is essential to creating a supportive work environment. 

Teacher Victoria Hewett wrote for Education Support that leaders should “find ways for staff to shout about the great things they’ve seen going on or are doing themselves and take the time to acknowledge them,” adding that “It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture but noticing and appreciating the small parts that make up the big picture is invaluable.”

This helps teachers and school leaders to know they are doing a good job, and feel they are making a difference. 

Another way you can show appreciation to colleagues if you are in a more senior position is to declare your support via the education staff wellbeing charter. 

It was created by a variety of organisations like Mind and the Department for Education in a bid for all state funded schools to show a shared commitment to protect, promote and enhance the wellbeing of their staff.

The charter is a tool for schools and colleges to create and publicly commit to their own wellbeing strategies, as well as creating a staff wellbeing strategy.

Signing up is voluntary, but it shows staff that you are dedicated to changing the workplace for the better. 

Offer flexible working 

For many teachers, one of the reasons they struggle with their mental health is the lack of a work-life balance. One way to combat this is to make flexible working available for staff. This means making arrangements which allow employees to vary the amount, timing, or location of their work. 

A flexible role can be important for those returning to teaching, especially following a caring-related break which may have been due to stress from work, although there are plenty of other reasons why someone might want to work flexibly. 

Schools should also make sure there is clarity and fairness around implementing flexible work policies and processes.