We have just published the results of our first national staff wellbeing survey, covering the English regions and home countries. Nearly 8000 staff members took part, including teachers, support staff and leaders.

You can download your copy here.

There are a number of key findings, and I am going to focus on one of them in this article. While staff in SEN schools gave the overall highest scores, and did so in the majority of the Management Standards measured by the survey, the difference in scores between staff across most sectors and phases was not significant.  One thing that stands out, is that scores between Academies and Local Authority maintained schools, are similar.

The results are not determined by the type of school, college or MAT. It is the leadership of them that matters most. The behaviours of leaders, how they communicate, and the support processes established, such as appraisals and 1 to 1s, are what make the biggest difference. It is all about the culture. 

There really has never been a better time for leaders to focus on their own wellbeing and that of those they lead. It is time to properly put staff first. It is the only sustainable way of achieving the pupil outcomes needed and the 'catch up' that is being planned.

Many leaders and staff members were exhausted at the end of the 2021 school year, given the additional efforts everyone put in, on top of what was already a high workload. And when we talk about staff, we have to make sure we include senior leaders too. They are often forgotten and seen as the people to look after the wellbeing of others.

Since March 2020, we have all had to navigate the many risks from Covid, learn many new skills, and all of those in education have done a fantastic job continuing to educate and support young people. Many are feeling, with justification, their work has not had the recognition it deserves from government and the wider public.

And before Covid we were already at a crossroads:

  • Teacher shortages with demand outstripping supply in some locations and subjects.
  • The challenges of retention, with teachers and other staff leaving (retirement and Covid related impact is predicted to accelerate this).
  • Rising mental ill-health and stress being the biggest cause of long-term absence.

And while most research is on teachers, I know from the work we do with schools that it is important to include all staff.  

How do we best improve school climate and staff wellbeing in schools?

As staff members, it’s always good to see cakes on the table, when we are asked to attend that after school staff meeting. Or perhaps it’s free fruit in the staffroom, or the breakfast when we have an early morning start.

Staff may have the opportunity to take part in activities, for example a wellbeing day or even a wellbeing week. It might be yoga, other exercise, team building or some form of training on self-care.

There is nothing wrong with any of these. If your school or college already has the right climate and staff wellbeing foundations in place, and supports staff throughout the year, then these will add to what you are already doing. They are just not the place to start or to focus on first.

If staff do not feel supported or valued, do not have good relationships with their line manager or do not enjoy their work, then after they have eaten their cake, practiced yoga or participated in a wellbeing day, what has changed!

Climate and staff wellbeing is all about the culture that leaders create!

It is like building a house.

It is about putting down the right foundations. This means establishing effective behaviours and having the right supporting processes in place, so staff always feel valued and supported.

Yet I see many organisations spending time on building the middle and top floors first. They provide the cakes, fruit, yoga and wellbeing days as their solution.

It is understandable as it is much easier treating symptoms and providing sticking plaster solutions than addressing the real causes. It may give a short term adrenaline shot, a boost, yet we need long-term solutions.

Image of the House of Organisational Wellbeing (copyright Welbee)

And while it is important we have additional support for those that need it, these are not the place to start, or the things to do, until firm foundations are in place.

Over the year, we have teacher day, stress awareness week, and World wellbeing week. I understand the purpose of these to raise awareness, yet they add to the feeling that these are not part of everyday life – as they should be.

Awareness of stress, wellbeing and appreciating teachers and other school staff should be for every working day!

Before looking at problems and solutions, let’s ask the questions, why improve staff wellbeing?

While there has been limited research in schools into staff self-reported wellbeing, there has been significant research across sectors. One school study showed a statistically significant link between staff self-reported wellbeing and student progress and exam results.

There has been much more research carried out in the health sector and this has proved a causal link. The higher that hospital staff report their own wellbeing, the higher the outcomes across a wide range of performance and financial goals.

These include staff absenteeism, staff retention, staff cover, patient satisfaction, infection and mortality rates. So we can very confidently say that the higher that hospital staff self-report their wellbeing, the fewer patients will die.

So next time you need a hospital visit, it may be worth checking out how well staff view the climate in which they work.

This research also showed the associated financial costs of poor climate and poor staff wellbeing can be significant. And that it is important to monitor staff wellbeing and target resources to areas known to be problematic.

Other benefits of improving staff wellbeing, in addition to raising student outcomes include:

  • Reducing staff absence and the need for cover, and therefore ensuring continuity of teaching.
  • Improving staff attraction and retention and reducing the need for recruitment, training and development.
  • Reducing management time spent on those other unproductive tasks we just don’t need, such as staff friction, poor performance or grievances.

If you want to improve climate and culture for staff where should you start?

You need to know where you are now, if you are to make the right plans and track progress. Know your numbers!

Start with existing school data, and use existing systems and information where possible, as we don’t want to add significant (or any) workload. Hopefully you are already collecting this in some form and data to consider includes:

  • Staff sickness and absence rates.
  • Staff turnover.
  • How often your support schemes or counselling provision or occupational health is used.
  • Information on staff grievances, disputes or instances of poor behaviour; and
  • School performance trends.

In all of these you are considering both the current situation and how this might compare to the national position, where known, or what you might expect it to be, as well as changes you can see over time.

In addition you can seek staff feedback through group discussions, conversations and through targeting specific situations. These include return to work interviews, welfare discussions, exit interviews, regular check-ins and 1 to 1s.

These all give you clues to the likely wellbeing of your staff, the climate in which they are working and possible solutions. 

To add to this you should use a staff survey, like the one we used for our National Survey Report. Whether you are going to do it yourself or it is being run by a third party, there are some key points to think about.

  • It should have an evidence base and make sure it has benchmarks so you can see your comparative performance. This is because not all scores are equal when using a Likert scale. We tend to think of 3 as OK, 4 as good, and less than 3 as needing attention. However, it is probable that in some areas a score of 4 will leave you with significant headroom for growth, while a score in the low 3s in another area could be in the top decile of schools and waste time and effort if you focus on it.
  • Use the same questions and repeat. There is a tendency for some leaders to change questions to suit external or internal experiences. While you might add a few new ones, avoid wholesale changes, otherwise you cannot track changes. 
  • Use a survey that measures working conditions and climate.
  • Think about how you will achieve a high participation rate. Make sure the survey is anonymous and that you explain why you are doing it and what is in it for staff members. That is about how you will act on their feedback. Ideally give staff time to take it at work – it sends the right message about the importance you place on their wellbeing.
  • Finally think about how you will share results with staff and engage with them in solutions. It cannot be about you solving everything!

The survey we use and recommend, and that meets these requirements is based on the internationally known Health and Safety Executive's Indicator Tool. This defines the characteristics and culture of a school, where the risks from work related stress and poor workplace wellbeing are being effectively managed and controlled.

It is also one recommended within the references of the UK's Department for Education staff wellbeing charter.

It covers the six key areas of work design, that if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity, increased sickness absence and lower staff retention. By measuring staff against these, we can determine how they view their working environment and act, where required, to improve it.

The six standards covered are:

  • Demands - How well staff are coping with things like their workload, deadlines and the pressures they are under.
  • Control – Are staff empowered in their roles? The degree to which they have a say in what and how they do things.
  • Support – The degree to which staff feel supported by their managers and peers?
  • Relationships – Are relationships in school and between staff effective, and issues, such as harassment or bullying dealt with quickly?
  • Role - Do staff know what is expected of them and how this fits with the work of their function and aim of the school?
  • Change – Are staff consulted on change and do they have the opportunity to question leaders about it?

The results will allow you to Focus on those things that will improve your foundations and will be embedded in your culture, so staff wellbeing is simply part of what happens every day.

So what has the biggest impact on staff wellbeing and school climate?

There are all the usual things about workload, having a greater say in what you do and opportunities for progression and development. These are important, and perhaps the most important aspect is how these are lead and managed in school.

Schools and colleges will always be busy environments and workload will always be too high. Leaders have to help themselves and others understand this, as there is no light at the end of the workload tunnel. There is simply too much to do and staff have to become comfortable with this. To prioritise, undertake the most important work and accept it is OK to go home with work outstanding and pick it up in the morning.

This doesn’t mean we should not be taking steps to drive out unnecessary work and work that has little impact on student, staff or school outcomes.

Leaders and leadership are the key ingredient!

“The thing that is causing people to get ill at work and adversely affect their quality of working life is line managers who are not socially and interpersonally skilled. They don’t have the soft skills that are needed.”

These are the words of Professor Sir Cary Cooper, one of the UK's leading experts on workplace wellbeing.

Tackling this, before adding wellness programmes and perks, and making sure wellbeing is something that is part of your school culture and everyday behaviours is the solution.

It is what cakes and yoga cannot deliver! The long-term consistent performance and culture that is needed. Getting this right is at the centre of your house foundations and will ensure it stands for a long-time.

Yet we know how challenging this is within schools and for leaders. On first appointment and throughout middle leadership structures, many leaders have to continue to do their previous job, for example continuing to teach in the classroom.

They have such limited time, so how do they spend enough time checking in with staff, coaching others, or developing as a leader?

In addition potential leaders are often not given the opportunity to develop much needed skills before appointment and receive limited support after. And when it does happen it’s usually squashed into short and rushed twilight or inset sessions. Even when training takes place, it is often limited when it comes to the behaviours needed to effectively and consistently lead people. It does not provide sufficient focus on those missing soft skills mentioned by Professor Cooper.

This is often not the fault of leaders and the current system is 'broken'. We need change if we are to more easily improve the wellbeing of staff. While we need to campaign for increased resources, capacity and training, it is likely down to school leaders to take action.

It is about giving leaders the tools and resources they need to support the wellbeing of those they line manage. For those interested in the new wellbeing charter, whether or not you are under the jurisdiction of the Department for education, this is commitment 3.

To improve this, one place to look is at an interesting piece of research from London University. Over a five year period they identified 12 competencies, that if leaders had them, would  prevent and reduce stress in the staff they led.

If leaders demonstrate these then they will engage their teams and create an environment where more people thrive. Staff will also copy and take greater ownership of their own wellbeing.

The behaviours within these competencies include, among many others:

  • Doing what you say you will
  • Not talking about people behind their back
  • Not taking feedback as criticism
  • Being consistent in your behaviours and moods
  • And praising more than you criticise

Asking leaders to self-assess against these competencies is the easy bit (we provide this in our toolkit). Supporting them to choose to adapt and change behaviour is much harder. People have deep and long-held beliefs and need to understand why they should change, as well as regular and deliberate reflection and practice to develop new habits.

Senior leaders have to be role models, so others copy, and as line managers they have to coach their middle leaders. Without this people will very quickly return to their default position.

Introducing the above behaviours across your school, college or MAT is a great step, and a cornerstone on which to build a people strategy that will reduce absences and costs and improve retention and results.

Yet simply sharing these does not address the fact there is not enough capacity or time available for leaders. Time is the one thing none of us have control over, unless you happen to have a time turner like Hermione in Harry Potter! And there is no simple answer for this!

What we do have control over is what we focus on, our priorities and to decide what is most important. The good news is that making these changes, does not add work, it just means doing things differently.

If you choose to put staff first and focus on culture, wellbeing simply becomes part of what happens every day. The more effectively you do this, the less you will need to talk about it and make specific plans. By all means add cake, yoga and other self-care activities but make sure they are not the first or only things you do.

Build those strong foundations and systemise how you go about improving it. Measure, set your goals and plans, implement, follow up, embed, track and finally repeat. Make this simply a part of what you do.

That is what we have built within our own platform to support schools, colleges and MATs. If you are interested in seeing how we provide support to systemise improving staff wellbeing to support a culture where staff and pupils will thrive, you can see more details, sign-up or book a demo here.


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