Knowledge Bank - Leadership

Do We Care Enough About Staff Wellbeing And Mental health?

Worthwhileness – happiness – well-being. These words are relatively new in politics – and in education. Richard Layard1 suggests that the things that make people happy are our social lives, the trust we have in others, the continuity of our lives, our feelings of self-worth (including feeling at least as well off as other people), and the feeling that things are getting better.

Can such elements be striven for in schools? Are they measurable? And if so, what will that tell us? And what’s it got to do with schools? Individual happiness is an aspiration that depends on a variety of factors, personal and general. We hope to be happy in our work and in our personal lives. We work better when we feel good. Schools can be happy, or not. That may depend on the agglomeration of personal happiness – over which we have little control – or, more likely, it is at least partly dependent on the characteristics of the school – its structures, its ways of working, its collective sense of self-worth and meaningful achievement.

What might a well-being school look like? Perhaps well-being is more sustainable than happiness. Because happiness may be transitory and dependent on haphazard things, we – along with the government – talk of well-being in the organisation. Well-being may be more attainable, and it certainly contains the idea of resilience. It suggests that we may not always be immune to problems that affect our happiness – bereavement, loss of status or other meaningful things in our lives – but we have inner resources that help us to withstand such setbacks and losses, and to recover from them. Can a school embody this quality?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has set out a series of Management Standards, which define the characteristics of an organisation where work-related stress is being managed and controlled. The standards cover “six key areas of work design” which impact on staff health and well-being, productivity and attendance. These six areas are defined as the potential primary sources of stress at work. They are:

  • demands – including issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • support – including the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The Management Standards represent a set of conditions that, if fulfilled, reflect a high level of health, well-being and organisational performance.

Crucially, the question of school well-being has become of interest to both Ofsted in England and Estyn in Wales. But to many it’s a slippery concept, inclined to fluffiness. Nevertheless, Ofsted charges governing bodies with ensuring the health, safety and well-being of staff and pupils, and requires them to have procedures to support this.

Good practice

One major way of evaluating an organisation is by measuring the outcomes of its core business, but most of us would agree that having examination results as the only measure is short-sighted. So what is wrong with looking at how schools operate, and helping them to do it better? There is a broad consensus, not just in the world of education, that organisations that examine the way they operate, that identify good effective practices and develop them, and that notice poor practices that produce poor outcomes and try to minimise them, will engage the loyalty and commitment of their staff.

Some research shows that schools that do support staff well are more likely to produce better outcomes: “Schools whose staff, on average, report higher levels of feeling valued, greater job satisfaction and lower levels of work overload are also those where SATs performance is higher.”2 Furthermore, case studies strongly suggest that a focus on staff well-being raises morale, improves practice, and develops collegiality, as well as raising outcomes at both primary and secondary levels.

Schools where staff have a greater sense of well-being are better places to be – they recruit and retain good staff more effectively than other schools; staff are off sick less and report lower levels of stress; and they produce better results. They are not afraid to try new things or to evaluate their own performance. They also have a more positive impact on students. They are places where people feel good most of the time. So what can schools do to bring about well-being?

The role of a well-being team could be to ensure that staff are kept informed about developments, that their issues are represented in an action plan, that the action plan is being achieved, and that well-being issues are raised on all relevant agenda.

Like most organisations, the key issues that arise in schools for all staff are communications and managing workload. Often the former is the greatest concern of support staff, who find themselves left out of the loop more often than they should, while the second is cited mainly, but not exclusively, by teaching staff and senior management.

One of the largest organisations supporting school employees’ well-being in the UK is Worklife Support (WLS), which is a not-for-profit company established in 2001 by the Teacher Support Network. WLS (see www.worklifesupport. com) has worked with over 3,000 schools on its well-being programme. Participation in the programme is recognised by the Health and Safety Executive and by Ofsted teams as demonstrating that schools are meeting their duty of care. It provides both strands of a well-being programme, supporting individual staff through a confidential Employee Assistance Programme, providing counselling and advice on work and life issues, and consultancy support to a well-being team following a well-being survey and staff discussions. Well-being teams are encouraged to identify both quick fixes and long-term strategies.

So what can we do to help to achieve our well-being goals in schools? The following checklist may be a useful starting point. Another is reading through the great articles in this Knowledge Bank from TeachingTimes and Strictly Education 

A Wellbeing Checklist

  • We value everyone’s contribution to the school, underplaying hierarchies and promoting a shared vision.
  • We help people to manage their workload better.
  • We show appreciation of everyone who contributes to the good running of the school.
  • We tell everyone as much of what’s going on as much of the time as possible, and help people through times of change, even when it might not directly concern them.
  • We have strategies in place to support people unintrusively when they are experiencing difficulties.
  • We help people to find the appropriate slot for them that work should play in their lives.
  • We focus on the core business of the school, and show how everyone can play a part in achieving it (It is said that if you visit NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas, and ask the car park attendant what his job is, he will answer, “To help put people into space”). If everyone shares the vision of the school, how much more likely are we to come near to achieving it?
  • And we demonstrate to everyone how the school is getting better at achieving it; We pledge that everyone who works here will leave in some way better off than they came.

Advancing well-being in a school changes lives. It puts people at the heart of the school. Outcome targets may be with us forever, and teachers suffer some of the highest rates of work-related stress. But mental health issues cost UK employers some £26 billion each year. Your staff are always your most valuable resource. Look after them.

Nigel Gann is an education consultant, a well-being facilitator, and author of Targets for Tomorrow’s Schools: A Guide to Whole School Target-setting (Routledge).


1. Layard, R (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a new science, Allen Lane

2. Dewberry, C; Briner, RB (2007), ‘The Relation Between WellBeing and Climate in Schools and Pupil Performance’, Birkbeck College, published by Worklife Support

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