Enough about teacher stress: it’s time for a new dialogue

Being able to measure the impact that health and well-being has on motivation, performance and retention of staff can be a school’s greatest asset. Babcock Education describes why happy and healthy staff will have a positive impact on the learning outcomes of children.

The Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) report on stress-related and psychological disorders in Great Britain (2014) reiterates a story we know well. Its scoreboard of the top three most stressful industries to work in has education nestling below the similarly‑beleaguered health and social care and public administration and defence. These three work sectors experience significantly higher rates of work-related stress than other industries. Indeed, so often do we hear statistics and survey results about teacher overload that such information has long since ceased to be newsworthy.

There is absolutely no doubt that the HSE’s report – and the numerous others which present a similar picture about the teacher workforce – reflect a real and very worrying prevalence of work‑related stress and associated conditions amongst teachers and other education workers. The HSE’s data comparison with the previous three years also shows no statistically-significant change. The prevalence of work-related stress does not appear to be escalating. That’s the positive spin. The bad news is that levels of work-related stress in the sector are simply high all the time. And yet we know all this already and the downbeat rhetoric is not really getting us further forward. Campaigners tend to respond by taking their call to arms straight to the centre, namely – for publicly‑funded schools at least – the Department for Education (DfE).

As the DfE’s direction since 2010 has been to move away from top-down prescription, calls for statutory limits on working time and enforced work-life balance policies not only run contrary to this strategy but the likelihood of such dictatorial tools making a significant difference is debatable at best. Nor is simply obliterating Ofsted (though head teachers may occasionally allow themselves to indulge in such a dream) and bringing in a new accountability regime automatically going to solve the problem. Let us not ignore the fact that ‘perceived pressures of Ofsted’ was the most commonly cited driver of workload in the DfE’s recent Workload Challenge, but equally let us not ignore that this was closely followed second by ‘tasks set by middle or senior leaders’, suggesting that a significant proportion of the workload burden is internally driven rather than generated from above.

Doubtless there are plenty of measures that schools could implement (and, to a lesser extent, the DfE and Ofsted) to tackle workload issues in an incremental way. A number of such steps have, in fact, already been taken but let us not be fooled that teachers – any more than other graduate professionals – will ever work anything like a 35 hour week.

Incremental cultural change
The relentlessly negative focus on teacher stress drives new graduates into other professions, exacerbating the localised teacher shortages which already exist and which are increasing, particularly in the South East. Furthermore it constantly reinforces a public perception in the UK that teachers do little else but bemoan their lot in a career which ultimately they chose and can leave at any time (and don’t forget their 13 weeks’ ‘holiday’). Anyone working in education knows that the daily working life of many teachers is more bed of nails than bed of roses but the profession will never get the recognition it deserves from the wider public as long as these messages are mainstream.

What, therefore, is the answer? The solution to securing teacher well-being is in starting small, it is in incremental culture change, it is in recognising the interrelationship with pupil well-being and thus realising the ‘business’ element to the argument, not just the moral one. It can only find its place in sustainable strategies overseen by emotionally-intelligent leaders, not in high‑profile, short-lived initiatives that quickly run out of energy and money. Well‑being at work can be seen as one of those nice‑to‑have‑but‑we’re‑far‑too‑busy‑just‑trying-to-run-a-school-with-empty-coffers gimmicks which are strongly in danger of being filed in the ‘nice but a bit too fluffy’ drawer. With initiative fatigue already smothering motivation across the sector it’s just one more thing to take on board. School leaders, rightly, have to be convinced of its value.

Seeking to define what well-being actually is, lofty theories aside, is very individual. We all have an instinctive and personal sense of what it represents and can appreciate that well-being is not only a broad concept but may be made up of a balance of different factors in different people. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) sums it up succinctly as ‘the subjective state of being healthy, happy, contented, comfortable and satisfied with one’s quality of life’. The common threats to well-being in the workplace are also well understood; research on the education sector suggests that teachers’ needs are in fact no different from other occupational groups. To thrive at work, most people benefit from greater job control, more support from senior staff and colleagues, productive relationships based on respect and trust, better-managed organisational change, role clarity and a good balance between effort and reward.

Well-being and Improvement
The pressure on schools to improve pupil outcomes is greater now than ever before – we all recall the moment when ‘satisfactory’ became ‘no longer good enough’. So the theme of well-being risks being understated and school leaders have to be persuaded that there is a direct link between well‑being and performance improvement.

It’s not just academic results that are under scrutiny. Public bodies (including schools) are now, for example, under a new legal duty to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This is on top of the existing requirement to teach British values. Since the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ plot became headline news teachers have been contemplating a range of difficult issues, including where exactly on the spectrum ‘extremism’ starts and finishes, as well as how to have that debate in the first place and what role they are expected to play in policing prejudice.

Equally, the pervasive impact and pace of social media developments regularly infiltrate the classroom, compromising pupil well-being and leaving even the younger generation of teachers struggling to catch up with issues like cyberbullying and ‘sexting’ and the numerous other variants that crop up every week. Teachers broadly accept that their role as educators extends beyond the taught curriculum and that schools must play their part in addressing recognised societal problems. On the whole, teachers are excellent at safeguarding the welfare of children and young people. Yet are society’s expectations of what schools can deliver becoming too high?

Pupil and teacher synergy
The desire for our schools to achieve continuous improvement, whether academic or otherwise is, of course, the right one. This pressure, however, is driving workload burden, stress and anxiety, ‘burnout’, ill‑health absence and ill-health retirements. The irony is that pupil well-being drives academic achievement and – in turn – has a reciprocally positive impact on teacher well-being.

Evidence collated by Public Health England, ‘The link between pupil health and well-being and attainment’, highlights that pupils with better emotional well-being at age seven had a value-added Key Stage 2 score 2.46 points higher than pupils with poorer emotional well-being, equivalent to more than one term’s progress. Pupils with better attention skills at age 13 had a total value-added GCSE score equivalent to more than one extra GCSE at grade A* (63.38 points higher). School programmes that directly improve pupils’ social and emotional learning have similarly been linked with an 11 per cent boost in results in standardised achievement tests. Pupils who reported they enjoyed school at age 11 had better attainment at Key Stage 3, especially for maths, and similar results have been replicated in pupils of other ages. Bullying, unsurprisingly, has a significantly negative effect on attainment.

The synergy between pupil and teacher well-being is clear: student attainment impacts positively on teacher well-being and there is some encouraging, albeit limited, research evidence to suggest that there is a statistically positive relationship between staff well-being and SATs results, with eight per cent of variance attributable to teacher well-being after the exclusion of other factors. Whilst this may seem relatively small, the authors point out that this eight per cent may be more amenable to intervention than other more rigid factors associated with pupil performance, such as social class.

A whole-school approach
Valuable and interesting as such studies are the reality is that we don’t really need data to tell us these key points. Ask almost any teacher and they will tell you that they joined the profession to make a difference to children’s lives. Schools already have an obligation to promote the mental and physical development of pupils and prepare them for later life. Taking a whole-school approach to health and well‑being by modelling the same behaviours and a nurturing and supportive work culture should just be an extension of existing approaches. It also simply makes sense. It fosters that valuable connection between effort and reward, the appreciation of striving towards the same goals, the culture of ‘oneness’ that helps make outstanding schools what they are.

Intervention need not, however, be the daunting or costly task that many schools might perceive it to be. In fact, with reduced absences and greater teacher retention levels being a common by-product of well-being strategies, many schools can save money. Schools are experiencing the tension of trying to do more for less but this simply makes the case for well-being strategies even more pressing as the work burden on individuals increases. As a 2014 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Well-being Economics stated, ‘austerity makes a focus on well-being more essential not less’.

The case for intervention, particularly at the primary, preventative level, becomes incontrovertible in the face of the evidence about well-being and performance from education and beyond. Some schools are already harnessing the power of positive psychology in their staff and pupil well-being strategies: this approach focuses in particular on people’s strengths, what they can do rather than what they cannot, alongside other positive qualities such as emotional resilience, optimism and kindness. Positive psychology does not advocate pretending the negatives don’t exist, rather it emphasises acceptance and finding positive solutions.

Mindfulness training lends itself nicely to this kind of approach: the All-Party Parliamentary Group has in fact recommended that mindfulness be incorporated into the basic training of teachers in future for the benefit of both themselves and pupils. Teachers work in an emotionally labour‑intensive environment, constantly moving from one interaction to another, having to regulate their behaviour and often needing to suppress feelings. Mindfulness training can help teachers with emotional regulation, relationship management and resilience, reducing their perceived levels of stress and improving job satisfaction.

In July 2015, the Wellcome Trust launched a £6.4 million research programme to assess whether mindfulness training for teenagers can improve their mental health. One part of the study is to include the first large randomised control trial of mindfulness training involving nearly 6,000 students and running for five years. The other parts of the study will focus on experimental research to establish the impact of mindfulness on the mental resilience of teenagers as well as an evaluation of the most effective way to train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes. Researchers will assess mental health problems as well as positive mental health and will also look at secondary outcomes, including impact on teacher well-being.

At Bright Futures Educational Trust, a partnership of schools based in the North West, mindfulness is already taught across the Trust with more than half of its staff trained in mindfulness practices. As a result, both pupils and staff report feeling calmer and better equipped to manage challenges in their lives.         
Commenting on the Wellcome Trust study, Dame Dana Ross-Wawrzynski, CEO, said: “We are big supporters of mindfulness in schools and are very happy to see that it will be taught more widely in the UK. There are a great many benefits to the teaching of mindfulness, including the improvement of students’ well-being and learning. We have certainly seen the benefits of mindfulness in our schools and will continue to support its place in the curriculum.”

Influences on School Culture
School culture is, unsurprisingly, strongly influenced by the behaviour of school leaders. Whilst well-being solutions need to be driven by staff themselves, a consistent and positive approach will never become embedded without the support of senior leadership teams and school governors who need to be open and approachable, receptive of new ideas and keen to recognise and acknowledge good performance.

The physical environment in which people work is more important than many of us might think. If facilities and equipment are clean, maintained and of a good standard this can make a tremendous difference to how people feel about work. The school culture needs to respect work-life balance whilst acknowledging workload pressures and offer up flexibility where possible. Leaders should act as role models and challenge behaviour or actions that may adversely affect health and well-being. Employees need to feel valued and trusted by the school through managers actively seeking and acknowledging their contribution, offering support and coaching and promoting a sense of community.

The experiences of others suggest it is important to start small. Babcock invites you to a Conference on 18 November on the theme ‘Supporting Employee Health & Well‑being in the Education Sector’. Babcock is also launching its School Health and Well‑being Review service. Working with a school leadership team in a tailor‑made review, the service evaluates key issues around the health and well‑being of the school as a workplace and produces a comprehensive report on health and well-being strategies which could be embedded into the school improvement plan, so that school leaders can learn how even small changes can have a cumulative positive impact on well‑being and a coexistent impact on schools’ ‘bottom line’: pupil performance.

Further information