The wellbeing of educators - priority or pipedream?

As a former school leader with eighteen years in the profession, I’d like to think I’ve received almost every question on education imaginable. But I was recently asked three questions that I really struggled to answer. Not because they were difficult but because the answers that I had just didn’t seem to cut it.

1.     Is the physical and mental wellbeing of educators a priority?

2.     Are educators supported to make healthy choices?

3.     How does the physical and mental wellbeing of educators impact students?

I love all things education and it’s my belief that being an educator is one of the most satisfying and rewarding professions around. It’s not a job – it’s a vocation, that for many is all encompassing. But you can’t escape the recent headlines regarding the wellbeing of educators.

A recent survey commissioned by the Education Support Partnership makes for bleak reading. It states that an overwhelming majority of the UK’s education professionals have suffered physical and mental health issues as a result of their jobs and over half of those surveyed considered leaving the sector in the past two years. This appears to go some way in explaining the findings of a National Audit Office report which revealed that last year alone, 35,000 teachers left their jobs for reasons other than retirement.

These are worrying statistics and with more pressure than ever coming from curriculum changes, changes in assessment, emphasis on performance data, not to mention Ofsted, the one topic that appears to be consistently swept aside is that of the health and wellbeing of those who teach.

As a school leader, I was responsible not only for the welfare and wellbeing of every single child within my care but also each and every one of my colleagues. But did I do enough to fulfil my responsibility in serving and upholding that duty of care to those that I lead?

I reached the sad conclusion that I did not. Not because I didn’t care – a huge proportion of my time was spent supporting and coaching colleagues, spending hours talking - even during unthinkable hours. However, aside from the basic school policies, procedures and the scaffolds that I put in place from my own initiative and experience – I had few formal options and resources to fall back on to aid me in promoting and actively developing their wellbeing.

I recently spoke with leading health and wellbeing expert - Sue Henry - to see if she could shed any light on the topic.

Sue works with large organisations, public sector bodies, communities and individuals and, with over 30 years of experience in improving health and wellbeing, has some great advice and strategies up her sleeve.  

Sue explained that health and wellbeing can be improved by using behavioural change techniques leading to positive and sustainable change.  “It all starts with self-care and is much simpler than it sounds” she assured me. She went on to say that when people are encouraged and provided with the opportunity and tools and techniques to care for themselves, health and wellbeing naturally improves.

So how can educators do this? As an executive coach and mentor, Sue advocates the 5 Ways to Wellbeing - an evidence based approach which is part of the Healthy Workforce Collaborative programme and draws on a group of experts in the field of health, social care and transformational change.  

When integrated into our daily lives, these 5 simple, yet brilliant steps will make a world of difference to your health and wellbeing.

1. Connect

With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

2. Be Active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

3. Give

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time.
Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.

4. Take Notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters.

5. Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.

Many of us probably do some of these things but without noticing the benefits that they have on our wellbeing and these 5 simple steps could certainly be incorporated into the daily routines of educational settings.

I wish I’d had access to these strategies during my time in schools. Too often, I saw unwell colleagues struggling on for extended periods - doing their best for the children in their care, putting their own wellbeing last. Working in this vain is unsustainable and in the long run impacts the quality of education being delivered. Ultimately, it can lead to long-term sickness absence, disrupted continuity for learners and a heavy financial burden for schools covering the cost of absent staff.  If we want to provide children with the best education, our educators need to be in the best condition both physically and mentally. Sue echoes my belief by reiterating that active, healthy employees are an organisation’s most important asset and so more MUST be done to ensure that educators are not putting themselves at risk for their profession.

We need action at many levels. The government needs to take this issue seriously if a catastrophic recruitment and retention crisis is to be avoided. Education unions need to continue their work in highlighting this issue, making sure it’s in the public eye. School leaders need to be courageous in prioritising and finding alternative ways to support their staff and finally, teachers themselves need to be better at self-care, give themselves a break, ask for support and stop putting their wellbeing last.

Find out more about Sue Henry via her website, Facebook or Twitter . Educators can access some great advice here and read the full Health Survey Report commissioned by the Education Support Partnership here.

By Jennie Adams on 5th October 2017


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