Can a supportive culture prevent teacher burnout?

School life is demanding at the best of times and recent months have only added to the pressures facing staff – so providing support to teachers, and spotting early warning signs that they may be struggling, are key to reducing professional burnout and absenteeism, says Alison Powell, head of HR at Severn Academies Educational Trust (SAET) in Kidderminster.

As pupils and teachers get back into the swing of school life in such unusual circumstances, there has undoubtedly been a significant increase in the pressure facing all involved compared to a more traditional autumn term. In such a pressurised environment, the threat of teacher burnout cannot be ignored.

With so much emphasis on pupil attendance in schools, it is perhaps no surprise that some teachers have previously felt they have to be stoical and come into work, no matter how unwell they are feeling. On the other hand, there are time when you might get pockets of recurrent absences that mean some student groups regularly end up being taught by supply teachers, which can be disruptive to their learning and expensive for the school.

Given the impact we have already seen on pupils’ learning of COVID-19 and the continued risk of periods of quarantine for students and staff, the need to reduce preventable absences is paramount.

Both absenteeism and presenteeism are undoubtedly detrimental to the individual, their colleagues and pupils. Professional burnout is a familiar story, as teachers try to soldier on but end up becoming physically and mentally exhausted and have to take extended periods off. There has certainly been an increase in long-term absences across the profession in recent years, and mental health problems also seem to be on the rise, although this could be down to more conversations around wellbeing.

It is still too early to tell yet what impact COVID-19 will have on teacher health and wellbeing in the long term. As a society, we’ll all be more aware of the risks of passing on infection, particularly to those who are vulnerable, so won’t simply carry on when we’re ill. We must also consider how the period of long-term isolation at home could lead to, or exacerbate, mental health issues among staff.

Cultural change

Stress is a common cause of ill health but the reasons why someone might be struggling varies enormously. Cultural change, such as the transition to academy status or joining a MAT, may derail staff who must get used to different ways of working and a new school identity.

Yet, while major upheaval inevitably brings an element of uncertainty, the processes for managing it tend to be more transparent and embedded. Small changes, that happen almost out of sight, can actually be more damaging, especially when there is no clear policy to address them and communication is poor. Creeping budget cuts, for instance, may result in bigger class sizes that eventually become overwhelming for some teachers, while others could find themselves in a management position without the right skills or training.

The reasons behind absenteeism and presenteeism are complex – but there are frameworks you can put in place to tackle them effectively. It is about developing people-centric policies that give everyone a voice, ensure they feel valued and empower them to seek support if needed.

We have worked hard to create a culture of transparency across our trust, with staff forums and representatives who sit on the staff council. People are your most valuable resource, so they need to be at the heart of everything we do and help shape our policies. Mirroring our student councils and parliament, we are able to engage both young people and adults alike.

Wellbeing is a standing agenda item on our forums and developing policies to support it should be ingrained in school life. Until Covid-19, we held a regular staff café where teachers can relax and chat, but simply buying cakes for your team every so often makes them smile. Other measures include challenging people to cut their workload and that of others by using technology and being mindful that what they do could impact a colleague’s stress levels.

Addressing the causes of persistent absence means looking at how it is reported. Capacity is an issue in many schools and line managers may lack the time for in-depth back-to-work interviews. Schools within the same trust could have vastly different absence rates, simply because of how it is tracked.  

The advantage for MATs is that it can be managed centrally, by a HR team trained in this field. We can implement consistent reporting methods then generate data for us to map trends and spot problems before they escalate. School management software, such as Access Education People, makes this task easier, with prompts that alert us to issues that need to be addressed. Line managers, of course, play a vital role in looking out for members of their team who are struggling – but we can alleviate the admin and empower them to talk to their staff.

Another measure we have introduced is ensuring that pupils have consistency, even when staff are absent, by providing stable cover. Rather than relying on supply teachers, we utilise the skills of our permanent workforce, many of whom can teach more than one subject. This adaptability will be more important than ever if staff are required to self-isolate.

Investment in CPD also helps staff feel valued and we always account for it in our budget. That said, there are ways to learn that cost little or nothing – for example, sharing good practice across the trust, shadowing colleagues and spending time at one of our other schools.

The ongoing impact of COVID-19 will certainly have an impact on staff absence and wellbeing, and the data for this period is likely to be skewed by it. Some teachers may be unwell but continuing to work at home or perhaps struggling with childcare responsibilities.

What matters most is that we are flexible to individuals’ needs and communicate with them regularly. As well as offering resources on managing their mental health, we make sure we check in with staff on a regular basis. During uncertain times, we must prioritise our people more than ever and reassure them that normality will resume once again.