With mental health and wellbeing issues having a growing impact on school staff and recruitment, we spoke to Jo Blair – HR consultant at School Business Services – about what strategies school leaders can implement to protect staff from burning out under an increasing workload
Managing workload in schools is a big issue for school leaders today – so much so that the government issued guidance, Reducing Teacher Workload, explaining in great detail how school leaders can review and reduce said workload. The irony is that the guidance involves a lot of reading, workshops, training and evaluations, which simply adds to the stress of the existing workload! Whilst the guidance has been issued with the best of intentions, and has some helpful information, my experience is that it has not been valued by school leaders or been widely implemented.
Workload has a huge impact on health, wellbeing and attendance at work; absence is a major issue faced by school leaders today and mental health referrals are on the increase. The recent budget announcement that an extra £2 billion will be invested into NHS mental health support over the next five years is, therefore, very welcome; schools must help their staff to access the support available wherever appropriate.
The early involvement of Occupational Health Services is key in proactively managing mental health issues; evidence shows that people who are suffering from stress, depression or anxiety are more like to develop physical illnesses too. There are some important things leaders must do in order to address issues of health and wellbeing among their staff.
Leaders who have responsibility for the wellbeing of staff should seek to understand the current culture around mental health so they can determine what support they need to put in place. This may include identifying potential high-risk areas, roles or locations, or specific issues staff struggle with such as behaviour management, workload and excessive hours.
Talk to HR!
Once you understand the current situation, always seek advice before proceeding further. Failure to seek advice can lead to mistakes being made that can be costly in both time and money and, ultimately, could lead to employment tribunals.
Look at existing HR policies – and implement new ones if necessary
Employees might not be aware of the mental health support that they can access, or they may be worried about the potential consequences of using it. Leaders must reassure staff that, should they need to access support, there will be no negative impact on their career or employment now or in the future.
Giving staff tools to recognise the signs of mental health is another option used to great effect. By training managers and leaders, schools equip staff to recognise mental health issues; this proactive approach helps stop things from escalating, and can prevent long term absence.
One of the most effective practices is to run a calendar of related activities throughout the year; for example, such activities can be scheduled regularly for INSET days to encourage staff engagement. This approach will encourage healthy behaviours and remind employees that help is available, and how to access it.
Make sure employees are aware that many services can be accessed confidentially if they are at all concerned.
Wherever possible, it is recommended that schools should have a separate budget specifically for health and wellbeing matters; in this age of budget cuts and financial difficulties, this is a big ask. However, dealing with these issues at a grass roots level has the potential to save significant amounts of money in the long run; for example, having just one senior member of teaching staff absent from work, long term, is extremely costly, not only in sick pay but also in having to employ a cover teacher.
Failure to address these issues in an effective and timely manner undoubtedly leads to one of the other main issues for school leaders today – recruitment! With so many teachers, both young and old, leaving the profession recruitment is fast becoming one of the major headaches for all school leaders, primary and secondary alike. In fact, teachers under 35 are more likely to leave the profession than teachers of any other age, citing pressures of workload, and the subsequent impact on their mental health, as the main reasons for their departure.
As a result, it is ever more crucial for school leaders to put in place robust strategic plans which support taking early action to proactively address the challenges of workload, health and wellbeing and attendance at work.