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Key insights: What Really Works with Staff Wellbeing?

Andrew King
11 May 2021
5 min read
Key insights: What Really Works with Staff Wellbeing?

On Tuesday 27th April, we hosted our What Really Works With Staff Wellbeing? webinar to find out how school leaders can support staff wellbeing. Presented by Helen Woodward, former Head of School Improvement at the DfE, we proudly welcomed two well-respected speakers to share their insights:

Liz Whetham, Executive Headteacher at Holy Trinity CofE Primary, Calderdale, and Consultant Headteacher at Westminster Primary, Bradford

Andy Mellor, National Director of Wellbeing at the Schools Advisory Service (SAS)

Liz and Andy were full of pragmatic advice and resourceful ideas, so we wanted to give you a summary of some of their most interesting insights!

Reducing workload

Unmanageable workloads play a big role in increasing stress among teaching staff. While teaching is a demanding role, Liz pointed out that there is arguably a cultural element among teachers which can exacerbate workload.

“I was one of those teachers that would work through the night, such was the workload that I had. I think over the years we’ve maybe become our own worst enemy in our profession. There’s a kind of boastfulness, people post 'I’ve done 3 hours marking tonight' on Facebook, someone else says 'well, I’ve done 4 hours marking tonight.' It’s almost a badge of honour.”

Liz went on to explain she discovered just how damaging unmanageable workloads can be for teachers when working on the Workplace Reduction Toolkit with the Department for Education.

“When I started working on the Workplace Reduction Toolkit, so many of the workload surveys were showing that this was catastrophic for our profession. We couldn't maintain these levels of such high-pressured workload if we were to retain the best professionals. As a headteacher, it’s been really important for me to try and ensure that the workload of all my staff in school was such that it didn't cause additional anxiety, or wellbeing issues for them.”

But what proven measures have school leaders taken to reduce workload? And, crucially, how can schools ensure measures to reduce workload aren’t at the detriment of quality of teaching? According to Liz, the answers lie in **‘**doing less better’. Considering which changes have the biggest impact on pupils can give clarity on what work should be prioritised, and which responsibilities may cause teachers unnecessary stress.

“It’s quite an individual thing. We used to do subject newsletters to parents, and we realised that actually the impacts and outcomes for children was nothing. All it did was create anxiety in the staff in the 12 weeks leading up to the week of the newsletter.”

How leaders and governors can improve staff wellbeing

Andy began with a challenge about where leadership for wellbeing is located within a school – that wellbeing isn’t always led by the most obvious authority figures within a school.

“There’s an assumption that it’s led by school leaders and governors, but I’ve visited some schools where wellbeing is actually led by a Teaching Assistant, or somebody else on the staff. Whoever a headteacher decides to lead wellbeing, it has to be somebody who has the power, authority and resources to make a difference.”

The definition of ‘wellbeing’ must be defined to avoid ambiguity, he continued:

“The word wellbeing can mean all sorts of things to different people. Quite often, you’ll hear someone say ‘well, what’s so-and-so doing for my wellbeing?’ But it has to be shared; there’s a shared responsibility for wellbeing. When I say it, the words that go through my head are ‘trying to make sure that the staff in our school are the best version of themselves that they can be.’ Let’s be clear what we mean by wellbeing. Governors and school leaders need to be clear that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model here, it has to be contextually appropriate for your school.”

Andy emphasised the importance of personal context, and how the wellbeing of your staff may relate to their life outside of the school environment.

“One of the things I was acutely aware of as a school leader is that it’s not just about building a wellbeing offer in school. It’s also about supporting your staff with things that happen outside of school, because some of the things that happen in life affect the ability of staff to be the best version of themselves they can be. If I had my time again, I’d look to have a really proactive conversation and ask ‘what can I do for you as an individual to support your wellbeing?’ (...) One of the starting points for school leaders and governors is to make sure that it’s really carefully audited. Have individual meetings, but also have a conversation with all your staff. Occasionally, I come across schools that have bought wellbeing support for teachers, but nobody else in school. It’s important that we think about wellbeing for everybody.”

Communicating wellbeing plans successfully

Naturally, not everyone feels the same about wellbeing, and proposals relating to wellbeing can sometimes be met with cynicism. The key to avoiding this, Andy said, is to involve all staff from the beginning and make planning wellbeing improvements a collaborative project in which everyone can have a say and feel heard.

“Dealing with the contextual issues in any one school is the way to go. If staff have been involved in the building of the plan, then they know what’s in it, they know what they’re working towards. I think it’s really important to keep revisiting it in staff meetings, and to give staff the opportunity to feed back.”

Andy was quick, however, to mention that core school staff often work different hours from one another, and so can’t be all in one room for a meeting at one time, but that there is software available to mitigate this:

“Clearly, if you’re having an academic staff meeting at 3:30pm on a Wednesday, your cleaner who works in the morning isn’t going to be able to attend. You’ve got to be creative about finding ways to engage with all staff to ensure that they can feed back on it. There are tools out there, and we at SAS have bought an audit tool for all of our schools to be able to access Edupod, a piece of software with which you can audit your wellbeing in school.”

Liz spoke about how communication between school leaders and parents can be useful to get a perspective from outside of schools. In some cases, asking parents can even help schools to discover novel suggestions for school plans that might not have been thought about otherwise, as Liz explained:

“It was really interesting how the parents came up with the idea that it might be more useful to split our end of year report into two, so that we have some of it in February/March and some of it in June/July. This resulted in less workload for our staff, because we asked parents 'what information do you want to know about your child, and when do you want to know it?'”

We’d like to thank Liz, Andy and Helen once again for taking part. If you’d like to see updates on future webinars, make sure you follow us on Twitter!

You can watch the hour long webinar (followed by a Q&A session) in full below!

To hear more from Liz, listen to Doing Less Better, the first episode of our podcast series, 10 with Zen. You may also be interested in episode 6, What Works in Wellbeing? with Nancy Hey, Executive Director at What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

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