Sensory work environments and staff wellbeing

What are sensory work environments and how can they help the teachers at your school? Dr Margot Sunderland, director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health, explains 

In the National Education Union’s survey of more than 8,000 teachers in April 2019 – The State of Education: Workload – two fifths of teachers said they would not be working in education by 2024; the main reasons given were workload and the accountability regime.
Many teachers are suffering from poor mental health and low morale as a result of highly pressurised workplaces. The Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 discovered that more than a quarter of education professionals reported signs of acute stress, which indicates toxic stress, that is chronic unrelieved strain and a key factor in mental and physical health problems, including anxiety and depression, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer (Felitti and Anda 2008).
It is, therefore, crucial that school leaders treat toxic stress as an urgent matter of health and safety and find practical strategies to convert toxic stress into tolerable stress. A 10-minute chat and a cup of tea in the staffroom isn’t enough for this to happen – teachers need to be provided with a work environment that is conducive to calming their minds, brains and bodies.
By providing teachers with a sensory retreat from schools’ daily pressures, it’s possible to significantly improve their working lives as well as their overall wellbeing.
What are sensory work environments and what are their benefits?
Rich sensory environments – or enriched environments (EEs) – are filled with sensory stimuli that engage people physically, cognitively, socially and sensorially. These stimuli are designed to prompt oxytocin (the anti-stress neurochemical) and opioids (euphoria-inducing enkephalins and endorphins) in the brain. There’s a wealth of research that proves the benefits of EEs on the mind, brain and body; for example, an article by Uvnäs-Moberg and Petersson states that oxytocin reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels, increases pain thresholds, reduces anxiety and encourages positive social interaction as well as promoting growth and healing.
Providing a special sensory, work-free and student-free ‘nurture room’, where teachers can unwind, is an effective and achievable way to bring down toxic stress levels and improve staff wellbeing.
How can you set up a sensory ‘nurture room’?
Such rooms are easy and inexpensive to set up – include the following sensory elements to trigger oxytocin and opioids (Uvnas-Moberg, K. (2011) The Oxytocin Factor):

  • Warm lights (uplighters).
  • Colours.
  • Soothing music.
  • Lovely smells.
  • Comforting fabric.
  • External warmth (such as electric blankets).
  • An open fire DVD.

In order for this sensory retreat to have a measurable positive impact, ensure that teachers have daily and easy access to the room and that regular time to use it is built into the school timetable. Physically calming activity sessions at school for teachers and support staff including mindfulness, Tai Chi and yoga will further reduce staff stress levels and supplement the benefits of the sensory space.
Next steps
It’s essential that teachers feel valued and nurtured in their work environments so that they can, in turn, nurture the children in their care. In order for wellbeing and morale at schools to significantly improve, there must be national recognition of the necessity to monitor the mental health culture of every school.
Governing bodies, trust boards and directors should make staff andpupil wellbeing key performance indicators for schools. In terms of staff mental health, an important initial step is for senior leadership teams – and their overseeing bodies – to focus on providing supportive physical environments which reduce the toxic stress levels of education professionals.

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