In order to facilitate better staff health and well-being, schools should consider:
- providing healthy food and drink options
- having a staff breakfast club
- building health and well-being into staff planning tools and diaries
- school leaders modelling healthy practice and well-being activities
- facilitating exercise, meditation, mindfulness and relaxation
- publicly accepting that ‘me time’ is not only OK, it is the norm.
What does being a healthy teacher or school leader mean? For starters, it doesn’t mean grabbing a large caffeine hit and a pastry at the local coffee shop on the way to school or skipping breakfast altogether. There is a reason that so many school’s offer breakfast clubs to students; and adults in school also need to care for themselves.
Seven tips for better health and well-being
Staff don’t need to make massive changes to move towards a healthier way of being, they just have to be willing to try; and to accept that sometimes ‘good’ is good enough. So, here are seven ways in which schools can support staff in adopting a healthier approach to work and life.
1 Choose food carefully
Many schools go to great lengths to ensure that their students are offered healthy choices at lunch time. But how can schools support their staff on the road to healthier eating? Strategies might include:
- Encourage staff to eat in the school canteen by offering a free lunch in return for an activity or lunchtime duty.
- Offer healthy snacks at breaktimes.
- Invite staff to take part in the school breakfast club and ensure that there are healthy options like porridge and fresh fruit available for them.
- Provide general guidance on current ‘superfoods’, which include beans, berries and other fruit, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, greens and other vegetables, flaxseeds, nuts and other seeds, whole grains, spices (like turmeric, marjoram and cayenne pepper), and drinks like water, coffee, and tea.
2 Suggest meal planning challenges
‘To fail to plan is to plan to fail.’ Many schools still don’t cater for healthy ‘fast’ food options, so if you forget to pack lunch, choices may be limited. However, some schools now design their own planners or diaries, to make it easier for staff to plan meals in advance, and encourage ‘dinner clubs’ in which staff share recipes and meal plan ideas.
Other initiatives can include a ‘No Sugar Challenge’ for a week or a month, in which colleagues work together to stay off the biccies (perhaps minus one cheat day a week). For this purpose, a calendar hung up in the staff room can be a great encouragement, as colleagues cross off another sugarless day – plus, it stops people being tempted to bring in sugary treats! If colleagues know what they are going to eat each day, they are less likely to reach for something unhealthy. And reducing sugar intake can also help to reduce fatigue and increase energy levels.
3 Encourage staff to resist taking on too much work
There have been studies that show that willpower gets stronger the more it is exercised, regardless of the topic it’s exercised on. It may feel counter-intuitive to ask staff to say ‘no’ more often in regard to work, but employees who maintain their work–life balance are far less likely to suffer from burnout.
You may consider modelling good practice, for example by not responding to emails in the evenings or at the weekend, or by inviting staff to join you for an exercise class one night a week. The more you do it, the more it becomes a habit, and an encouragement to others to follow your example.
4 Get moving!
The NHS promotes regular physical activity for a range of health benefits, including the reduction of symptoms relating to depression, anxiety and a range of diseases. If possible, gently encourage your colleagues to get moving and to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits this brings. You can tap into people’s competitive side or into a sense of community with the following:
- Set up a daily 10,000 steps challenge for all those who wish to take part. Lots of people now have activity trackers, and there are free apps available for smart phones that count daily steps.
- Offer free or subsidised yoga, Pilates or circuit training classes after school. Alternatively, you could try to organise a group of interested colleagues to pay for a yoga teacher to come to the school after hours without cost to the school.
- Dedicate one training day per year to staff well-being and offer walking, cycling, ‘learn a new sport’, relaxation or mindfulness classes.
- Start each day with the option of a Tai Chi group or meditation session (see below for ideas on meditation).
The list goes on; but offering staff exercise and wellness opportunities at minimal cost will soon pay for that investment in people ten-fold.
5 Encourage good sleeping habits
While we all know how important sleep is to our students, it’s a huge factor in our health as well. As we get older, we sleep much less, and sleep is often interrupted depending on lifestyle, age and stressors.
Unfortunately, a lack of sleep raises stress levels and causes a litany of health issues; yet it is often the first thing that is sacrificed during busy times.
Schools are admittedly limited in their scope to intervene when it comes to staff sleep; after all, staff don’t sleep on site! However, a poster in the staff room can help educate people about the importance of a good night’s sleep, and offer suggestions on how to achieve it, such as:
- Drink a small glass of tart cherry juice, which contains melatonin, to sleep better.
- Avoid caffeine after noon.
- Stay away from blue lights from TV, computer and phone screens before going to bed, as it has been shown to disrupt our circadian rhythms and can make us feel a false sense of wakefulness.
Schools can also help in a more direct way, for example by offering the following:
- after-school aerobic exercise classes or a running club, as evening exercise can aid restful sleep
- a selection of decaffeinated teas, coffees and herbal teas in the staffroom.
6 Practise mindfulness and meditation
Practising mindfulness and meditation can help staff to cope with the stresses of the day. Stress can have an enormous impact on health, causing chest pain, headaches and sleep issues, so it is important to help staff to find the right coping techniques.
Meditation is very effective in dealing with stress and increasing focus. While it can be especially hard to calm a teacher’s mind, there are several apps that can help with meditation and mindfulness and many online resources to recommend. You could start by recommending:
- http://bit.ly/MeditationApps1 for suggestions on the top free
- http://bit.ly/MeditationApps2 for 12 of the top free guided meditation apps.
7 Encourage colleagues to make time for themselves
Too often, teachers’ lives revolve totally around school. It is important that every member of staff is encouraged to make time for themselves to energise and regroup. We can encourage this by doing the following:
- Model it ourselves – share what you do to create ‘me time’ or add a regular entry to the staff bulletin.
- Encourage all staff to find just five minutes every day of peace and quiet – this might be in the fresh air, an empty classroom or even in a parked car.
- Add ‘me time’ to staff dairies and planners.
Working in schools can be extremely stressful, and there are plenty of reasons for staff to make unhealthy choices. However, with a little proactive support, colleagues can be encouraged to prioritise their health. Not only is this good for staff and the school, but pupils will also benefit from healthier teachers and senior leaders who model how to take care of their health.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
- Form – Healthy staff planning
- Checklist – Healthy teacher habits audit
- Form – Evaluating your provision for emotional health and well-being
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