Lowering stress levels, balancing wellbeing and building emotional resilience

Ross McWilliam, founder of MindsetPro, and Claire Kelly, director of curricula and training at Mindfulness in Schools Project, discuss improving staff wellbeing through building emotional resilience

Teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain. The government’s Teacher Wellbeing Report highlights that, while teachers love their profession, enjoy teaching and seeing pupils flourish, the negative elements outweigh the positives. Staff are suffering from high workloads, a lack of work-life balance, access to limited resources and a perceived lack of support from senior leaders, and this leads to poor occupational wellbeing for many teachers.

There has, subsequently, been an increased emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, with a greater focus on teacher wellbeing in Ofsted’s latest inspection framework. Quite often, mentality and attitude trickles from the top down; therefore, a negative mindset can have a significant impact on student wellbeing too.

Findings on overall support from senior leaders in the wellbeing report were mixed. Senior leaders were seen to positively contribute to wellbeing by some teachers. In this finding senior leaders support a positive work culture, are accessible to staff, listen to them, value them as professionals, recognise their work and support their autonomy.

However, on the flip side, teachers also reported that senior leaders could contribute to poor wellbeing. This happens when there is poor communication with staff, an autocratic management style, workload pressure and insufficient support and collaboration with staff.

So what can be done in order to minimise the risks, and ensure schools foster a compassionate and positive culture, which supports and retains the best talent?

Starting with staff

Firstly, it’s important to be aware of mental health; self-esteem, confidence and resilience are key components which underpin positive mental health and from which good mental health and wellbeing can be grown and nurtured. How do we take personal responsibility for this, and what can senior leaders do to nurture this desired outcome?

On a personal level, simply being aware that these emotional components are a strength is important . Each is connected to the another, and each must be continually nurtured because you can’t ringfence their benefits  – they work together.

Simple activities – such as recognising individual qualities and achievements – is a great starting point. Better still, get a trusted friend to write down your qualities and achievements; the power of peers can be a very valid, accurate and safe feedback mechanism.

In terms of senior leader input, a great starting place is dedicated staff wellbeing sessions. The aim is to share useful wellbeing advice, share challenges and even show vulnerability by disclosing some of the personal challenges that are affecting us. Senior leaders can build on this by creating the platform for staff to be more independent, eg. a staff wellbeing group that talks regularly and meets at least every month, either inside school, or outside. Some PPA time, and other resources, will go a long way in supporting a group of this type.

There has been ample research into mindfulness training and positive outcomes for young people. While this is of course both important and beneficial, the wellbeing of those working with young people should also be a focus; after all, energy, focus and positivity are reflected in the both individual and the work they deliver. While mindfulness can, of course, help alleviate teacher stress, the added side-effects include greater mental space and focus – room for creativity and increased teaching efficacy.

So, the key is to start with staff. For example, if you are thinking about introducing some form of mindfulness in your school, an introduction session led by a trained specialist as part of INSET/CPD for all staff (a truly whole-school approach might include not just teaching staff, but everyone from administrative to canteen staff) would help to dispel any myths about what mindfulness is/isn’t, inform them about the research evidence around it, and give a good sense of what is involved if they think they might want to try it. From these sessions, a core of interested staff members usually emerges, forming a working party for any mindfulness initiative you might want to introduce.

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Existing research indicates that the regular practice of mindfulness can help teachers and senior leaders experience a reduction of stress, fewer sleep difficulties, increased emotional self-awareness and compassion and greater potential to create positive changes both in and out of the classroom.

Managing stress

Secondly, it’s important to look at stress; you need to audit the stress, understand how it’s triggered and how it can be harnessed. Clearly, stress can be quite personal and very emotional; this is why a more detached and objective measure might be useful to give a rating of stress levels.

There are many stress audits out there, including one that relates directly to school challenges. Doing various pre and post measures, which straddle various interventions, is a sensible way to get objective feedback on wellbeing progress.

Perhaps just as crucial is an identification of triggers in the workplace. Using a simple proforma of triggers, with values relating to severity, almost always gives a clearer picture of what is ‘bugging us’; then we can decide on the best ways to reduce, if not eliminate, these stresses.

Collectively sharing ideas and experiences can also be a very effective way of discovering how to reduce your stresses. Peer feedback is regarded as very accurate – often more accurate than personal observations of self – and a powerful way to support one another and build trust.

At its most basic level mindfulness provides a platform for teachers to focus on, and listen to, what students have to say. It allows individuals to pick up on subtle signals that a student may be struggling, or on the point of discovery, and needs gently nudging this way or that to help them extend their understanding. This can start with simple grounding techniques that one learns at the very beginning of any mindfulness course but, to really begin to develop the best kind of presence and compassion (for self and others), completing an eight-week course of usually 90 – 120 minutes or so per week can be the real game-changer.

There is also evidence suggesting that mindfulness training for school staff can develop an increased capacity to decentre from strong or difficult thoughts and emotions and improve professional self-efficacy. This, in turn, is linked to perseverance with challenging situations or students and improved pupil behaviour. For example, rather than reacting on impulse, which, in hindsight, may not always be the best approach, what mindfulness training can do is help teachers to recognise those signs of reactivity, grounding them long enough enable them to step back from any urges to shout or humiliate, and then to re-engage calmly and with a sense of self-efficacy.

Engaging with staff, and introducing several simple steps and methods, including mindfulness, will all help contribute to reduced reactivity, improved emotional resilience and lower stress levels. Putting processes in place will help develop greater mental space and clarity, as well as the potential to be more confident, creative and fully present when teaching.

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