Five hacks to protect staff wellbeing

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Protecting the wellbeing of our education workforce is crucial during the pandemic. Martina Witter offers five resilience hacks for teaching staff to help support wellbeing during these times of change and uncertainty.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update

We are slowly emerging from our third national lockdown, which has required many teachers to work remotely, while simultaneously juggling home-schooling or the many other pressures that the pandemic has brought.

It is apparent that working and living during these times requires adaptability, grit and resilience for all; a mindset shift is required which includes a perspective shift from ‘living through’, to ‘living with’.

Uncertainty and change has become the norm; consequently, stress experienced by teachers is on the rise, as evidenced by the Teacher Wellbeing Index (2020) which found that 84% of teachers are very, or somewhat, stressed, rising to 89% of senior leaders.

This all highlights the need for resilience-building training and ‘hacks’ for education professionals. Resilience is a protective factor against stress, anxiety and depression and can be described as our ability to bounce back emotionally – to adapt, recover and grow during or after difficult and stressful times (Rutter, 2008). Resilience is also the process of continual development of personal competence in the face of adversity.

Hack 1: Resilient mindset

A resilient mindset requires optimism, as highlighted by psychologist Martin Seligman, who suggests that optimism during adversity is critical; resilient individuals view the effects of bad events as temporary rather than permanent.

Moreover, pervasiveness is important in resilient individuals – they do not allow setbacks to affect other unrelated aspects of their lives. It is important to ensure you have firm boundaries in place, especially if working remotely, to ensure that work stressors do not filter into your home life; it is also important to acknowledge that you may not be having a good day at work but not to allow this to affect the course of your week.

Finally, personalisation – it is important not to blame yourself when a bad situation arises, but, rather, demonstrate self-compassion, which will facilitate self-soothing, reduce anxiety and build resilience. It is important to acknowledge the role of external factors, such as other people or resources, in the impact of events.

Here are some useful questions that can help you to foster a resilient mindset:

  • During this pandemic, what have you learned about yourself?
  • What have you learned about your teams or colleagues?
  • What have you learned about the pupils?
  • What is most important to you in times of uncertainty (core values)?
  • Are there any opportunities for growth?
  • What obstacles have you overcome in the past, and how can you apply these experiences to your current difficulties?

Mindfulness facilitates a resilient mindset as it involves paying more attention to the present moment, including your thoughts, feelings and the world around you. It allows you to take a non-judgemental stance and to tune-in to your experiences while tuning out the distractions, worries and stresses.

Try using your senses to be mindful; try mindful breathing or ’body scan’ exercises (see online) when feeling overwhelmed, or if you are struggling to be present.

Hack 2: Community and connectedness

Community and connectedness are important in countering the isolation and loneliness that can easily be experienced at the moment, especially if working remotely. Try the following:

  • Check-in with colleagues and staff quickly through various methods including texts, emails and virtual staff meetings.
  • Headteachers and leaders should provide regular praise and feedback to ensure that teachers feel valued and visible – important when working remotely.
  • Communicate regular updates to all staff in order to foster cohesion and community.
  • Create ‘virtual staffrooms’ where teachers can chat, support and check-in with one another.
  • Establish ‘buddy networks’ and use these consistently to counter isolation and prevent apathy and stress.
  • Follow a routine and structure for your day as this provides safety and predictability – critical when facing uncertainty and change.
  • Differentiate work and leisure time and, if possible, have a designated working space at home.
  • Limit the frequency of checking work emails and turn your work ‘phone off when you are not working.

Teachers frequently report that relationships with colleagues are key to their resilience, as they provide opportunities for vicarious learning, and emotional and professional support, alongside the chance to validate their experiences.

Research (Duffield and O’Hare, 2020) suggests that drawing upon external support networks – such as family, friends or community groups – is advantageous to teacher resilience; therefore, this should be encouraged and enhanced during these times of adversity.

Hack 3: Promotion of a culture of help-seeking

Research suggests that help-seeking from others contributes to teacher resilience through facilitating problem-solving and effective decision-making (Duffield and O’Hare, 2020).

Moreover, help-seeking should be normalised, especially when working remotely. Unfortunately seeking help can also evoke feelings of vulnerability, or cause feelings of weakness or failing, which must be countered through normalising this behaviour. Senior leaders can facilitate this through modelling and encouraging this behaviour.

Hack 4: Learning opportunities

Learning opportunities for teachers, and the chance for team reflection, should be priorities. This will enhance teacher resilience by allowing them to acquire new skills and knowledge while recognising reflective conversations as learning opportunities. Learning opportunities create a safe space for teachers to build resilience while navigating novel skills or information.

Learning opportunities, such as delivering online teaching creatively using multiple platforms and technology, contribute towards the development of self-efficacy and confidence which provides impetus for resilience. Moreover, there have been, and will continue to be, a plethora of opportunities to learn during COVID, especially due to the requirement to deliver teaching in innovative and engaging ways. It is important for teachers to share their experiences with one another, and teachers should be encouraged to seek out learning opportunities personally and professionally as this will provide opportunities to cope with setbacks or perceived struggles and failures.

Learning is related to self-awareness and self-doubt, as you have to be willing to learn from failures or challenges. It is likely that, at this time, many teachers may be experiencing feelings of self-doubt, particularly as they try to develop ways of being a teacher in uncharted waters.

Hack 5: Tolerance and acceptance of uncertainty

The ability to tolerate uncertainty can enhance resilience while reducing anxiety. Learning to accept that uncertainty characterises your working life will allow you to embrace times of uncertainty, while protecting you from heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

We can all learn to tolerate and embrace uncertainty – and the identification ofthe  advantages and drawbacks of requiring certainty can facilitate this process. It is useful for staff to consider how they have coped with uncertainty in the past while considering positive outcomes too. Research (Tang et al, 2020) suggests that uncertainty boosts creativity and enhanced decision-making, so why not leverage these during challenging and uncertain times.

We can all develop resilience in times of uncertainty; we just have to be intentional about this.

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