- The economic impact of mental health issues can result in staff absence, which can affect the smooth running of the school.
- If schools want to support the mental health of students effectively, they must prioritise supporting the mental health of the staff, as poor mental wellbeing in staff can impact on the mental health of students.
- Before any support or interventions can be put in place, you need to know what support is required.
- Conduct an audit of staff’s mental wellbeing to discover where the priorities should be.
There is no doubt that the conversation around mental health in students has increased over the last few years. We are improving our understanding of student mental health, its impact on future life, and the importance of early interventions – hence the focus on supporting student mental health. Organisations and charities have developed a variety of support for schools via interventions and training on and off site.
However, we seem to be a bit slower in supporting the mental health of staff. Staff mental health is vital for several reasons. First, because we are caring employers and staff are our biggest resource. We have a duty to look after their physical and mental wellbeing.
Second, because staff have a large effect on the mental health of students. Think of the key influential people in your life up to the age of 16 – positive or negative. I bet there is a teacher in there. There may be a teacher who gave you a negative belief about yourself that you still hold today. If staff are happier, they are more likely to be a positive influence on students.
And finally, because of the economic impact mental health problems can have – various studies have shown a dramatic increase in staff absence due to mental health issues. Sometimes it does come down to cost.
If you want to support the mental health of students effectively, you must prioritise supporting the mental health of your staff. In a recent survey of teachers, the majority of them believed their mental health had a negative impact on students.
So, how are the staff at your school? Do you know? It is easy to presume that because we aren’t told of any issues, everything is OK. But this is rarely the case. Before you can put any support or interventions in place, you need to know what is required. Generic support is always less successful that targeted support. Conduct an audit of staff mental wellbeing to discover where the priorities should be. Here are some suggestions for the audit.
The best starting place is to conduct a staff survey asking staff how they are, what they think and what support they would like. Surveys don’t have to be a negative experience where people just moan. You can also ask for suggestions about how the school can work within the current framework to improve staff mental health.
If you want to know the truth, the survey has to be anonymous, with no comeback on any participants. I once facilitated staff mental wellbeing training in a school where a staff survey was conducted, and staff were then called into a senior leader’s office to be questioned on why they said such negative things in their responses. The staff were also not told the results of the survey or allowed the opportunity to give their opinion again. Not surprisingly, the staff were not very happy and the survey only contributed to a more negative staff ethos.
Conducting a survey isn’t just about finding where support is needed. It also sends a message that staff opinion is important, and that staff are valued and appreciated; already a first step in supporting staff mental wellbeing. The first step in supporting anyone’s mental health is to listen to them.
Look at your staff absence figures. What percentage is down to mental health issues and what is the average absence length? Is there a peak of absence issues at certain times throughout the year, e.g. towards the end of term, near Christmas, near exam season? If so, then what additional support can you put in place leading up to those times to help support mental health and reduce absence?
It’s very important for our mental health that the work environment is a nice place to be, and this isn’t just about physical environment (although that does play a big part). Is your staff room a nice place to be and is it used by staff? Staff rooms should be supportive, relaxing places where staff can take a break. If it’s not well used, then it may be a sign that it’s not a nice place. This means fewer teachers taking breaks and interacting with each other socially (both important for mental health).
Do staff greet each other warmly? Is reception friendly? All these things will have an impact on the mental health of staff and are things you can gauge without great expense.
Management style has a big impact on staff mental wellbeing and this has to be acknowledged, assessed and changed (through training) accordingly.
Sometimes management can think that staff only moan about things that can’t be changed, so there’s no point in listening to them. That may be true, but it isn’t about changing everything the staff don’t like. It’s about listening to them and considering their point of view; acknowledging how they feel. Remember, we all feel better when we are heard, even if nothing changes.
Generally, an autocratic management style has been shown by plenty of research to have a negative impact on employee mental health and wellbeing. It also leads to more bullying in the workplace – I’m talking staff and students here. Autocratic management styles are also often more secretive about decisions they make and why they make them. This again is bad for mental health.
Looking at management styles within schools is important when considering staff mental health and wellbeing. A more open and inclusive style of management has proven time and again to be better for employees’ mental health and wellbeing.
If I were to summarise all this in one word it would be ‘listen’. If you want to know about staff mental health and wellbeing listen to them. Hear them. Give them opportunities to express how they are feeling. Are staff prepared to support and listen to each other without saying, ‘You think you’ve got it bad? Let me tell you how bad it is for me!’? Once you’ve listened you can take action.
A staff survey can provide real insight to staff mental wellbeing and how to provide effective support. However, the way a school operates day to day can also provide similar insight. If you want to provide effective support, you have to listen and hear.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.samanthagarner.co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (http://www.cbt4schools.co.uk).