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Solutions: Creating a culture that fosters staff wellbeing

Research suggests that teacher stress levels are continuing to rise. Education Support’s 2023 Teacher Wellbeing survey shows that 78 per cent of teachers say they are stressed, up from 72 per cent the year before. In order for our staff to support our pupils, we need to provide them with support too. But what works?

In a past life I was a volunteer with the Samaritans, and the experience of answering phone calls from a variety of struggling people has stayed with me ever since. My doctorate was focused on pupil voice, and the principles I outlined there also apply to working with staff.

So, since becoming CEO of Evolution Academy Trust in January 2023, I have made it one of my priorities to improve staff wellbeing by regularly listening to them in order to provide them with access to resources and training to support themselves and others through difficult times.

Pitching in

In 2023 we trained someone from each of our 12 schools as a Mental Health First Aider. These colleagues then took their learning back into their settings. We have also launched a Trust Wellbeing Group, who meet twice-yearly to discuss challenges in the schools’ and central teams and develop strategies to address them.

This year all headteachers and members of the central team have completed a Mental Health First Aid England mental health awareness course to further enhance the support they are able to provide in their roles. We have also arranged free access for all staff to a mindfulness app.

And all that support reaches far beyond our trust’s own schools. We help others with collegiate support throughout the year, for example when the inevitable inspection phone call comes. Our senior leaders muck in as needed, doing anything from prepping paperwork to serving lunch.

Two-way feedback

To embed a supportive culture for mental health, we conduct an annual, anonymous staff wellbeing survey to gather the honest thoughts of staff across the trust. This helps us improve situations in individual schools and teams. Questions cover the most and least enjoyable parts of a person’s role, along with a deep dive into their thoughts around training, safety, management and mental health.

This is one of the most important exercises our organisation undertakes on a regular basis. Accepting sometimes negative feedback is essential to growing and developing as a trust and, of course, to retaining our talented staff.

The key is to use the results are acted on: publish an honest summary, reply to common themes and produce an action plan for tackling the main outcomes. I encourage all staff to “call it out”. Let’s address the elephant in the room, so we can tackle it head on.

Celebrate the little things

Elephants aside, it’s equally important to recognise the small actions that add up to an often very difficult job. For that I send thank you cards to staff members every week, those I have encountered myself and those who have been flagged to me by others. Not only does this celebrate our staff, but is inspires others to acknowledge and share the efforts of their colleagues. To the same ends, I also gather all staff at the to thank them personally after conducting a school review.

And on the subject of small actions that make a big difference, we also earmark some budget each year for headteachers to improve their staffrooms – a new coffee machine, a comfy sofa or some art for the walls. It’s a small gesture, but it matters a lot for staff when it’s their place to unwind from the pace of the school day.

If we want the best staff in our schools, we must prioritise them. We do that by engaging them in honest, professional, two-way conversations about what matters to them.

That means we can’t afford to be afraid to ask tough questions and receive tough answers. We may not like what we hear initially, but it is only through that commitment to improvement on all sides that we will sustain effective organisations and foster the mental health they rely on.

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