Barriers to staff and teacher wellbeing

Supporting staff and teacher wellbeing is a vital part of a whole school approach to developing wellbeing. Worth-it recently spoke with Kim Carr, a senior practitioner positive psychology in lead consultant for Worth-it and former psychology teacher and assistant head of sixth form, to find out her thoughts on why school staff and teachers don’t always prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing.

Do you think staff in schools and colleges prioritise their own wellbeing enough?

No, the majority don’t focus on it at all – their own wellbeing comes behind the children and young people’s wellbeing.

Why do you think some school/college staff find it hard to prioritise their own mental health?

Some don’t see it as being important. There is always the time pressure and heavy workload – lack of time to do everything so staff put their own wellbeing to the bottom of their to-do list. They don’t feel their wellbeing is as important as those around them, especially their pupils and students. There are a lot of thought processes involving guilt about putting themselves first.

What other barriers might there be to supporting staff or teacher wellbeing? 

Personality traits can be a barrier in terms of some people considering themselves as copers. There’s a stigma, which seems to be more in the education sector than many other sectors now, that you only need to look after yourself when you’re ill or can’t cope ­– that wellbeing is only important for people who are struggling, not those who are coping.

There’s also cognitive bias in terms of people seeing themselves as strong so they don’t ask for help, but these people are at risk of burnout and by the time they realise they needed to look after their wellbeing it may be too late – they could’ve already become stressed out and physically ill or exhausted.

I know from personal experience and from supporting teachers that there’s huge time pressure and workload that comes with teaching. Ina poll of 10,000 teachers, school leaders and support staff in schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, earlier this year, 35% of respondents said they would definitely not be working in education by 2026 (1). I know systemic changes are needed in education and hope that, in future, there will be less pressure on people working within the sector, for the sake of staff wellbeing and the wellbeing of children and young people.

Why is staff and teacher wellbeing so important for wellbeing of pupils and students? 

Research has shown that developing the wellbeing of staff develops student wellbeing and vice versa: student and teacher wellbeing are two sides of the same coin (2). Staff who look after their own wellbeing and are happy and contented most of the time are modelling flourishing and good wellbeing practices to their pupils and students. Teachers can’t give their best lesson if they’re feeling rubbish. Pupils can pick up on staff feeling below par and play up to this, which can cause more stress to the teacher who might display this to the pupils and their behaviour can worsen and so on – it can be a vicious cycle.

If staff have good wellbeing it increases their resilience to deal with day-to-day challenges of their role and to be more present for the young people; in turn the students will be more engaged.

What tips would you give to mental health leads to support teachers to look after their own mental health?

Firstly, to look after their own mental health! Provide a space where your staff can have open conversations. Positive relationships are so important for our wellbeing. Ask teachers and other school staff how they are and what they need from the school to support their wellbeing.

Honesty and sincerity are so important. People need to know that senior leaders aren’t just paying lip service to developing staff wellbeing for the sake of Ofsted inspection and to know that, if they show vulnerability, it will not affect their role or chances of promotion. This is something we cover in more depth in my Discovery Workshop which is part of Wellbeing Club, our DfE assured programme of support and training for Senior Mental Health Leads

For all school staff or teachers I would say take some time out every day to reflect on how you are and be proactive about mental wellbeing like you would your physical wellbeing.

Focus on your strengths – things that have gone right, not wrong. Focus on what you’ve achieved that day, not what is still to be done. Try writing down what you’ve achieved to help acknowledge your own successes.

Any final thoughts about teacher wellbeing?

If you’re struggling, it’s not unusual. At Worth-it we understand the different pressures school staff are under; we’re coming from a place of warmth and want to help you. We want to support you to be thriving and flourishing. We’re here to listen, not to criticise. Asking for help and talking through our problems shows strength and models vulnerability to other members of staff, pupils, and students.

How we can help you with staff wellbeing

If you would like more support to improve staff wellbeing, reduce burnout and manage stress, you can enrol your team on our Staff Wellbeing Programme.

Worth-it’s Wellbeing Club supports you to develop staff wellbeing as part of a culture for whole school wellbeing. Find out how you can access funding to join Wellbeing Club by accessing our DfE Funding Information Session.

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