Box ticking or true wellbeing in schools?

Box ticking or true wellbeing in schools?

The term ‘wellbeing’ can be heard in many workplaces these days, and many businesses have sprouted up that provide wellbeing training and workshops to support organisations to make wellbeing an item that is firmly on the agenda.

We talk about wellbeing, but what does it mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” However, according to the organisation www.mentalhealth.org.uk[1] it “also includes other things, such as how satisfied people are with their life as a whole, their sense of purpose, and how in control they feel.”

Beyond the definition, we start to realise that wellbeing is not something that is easily quantifiable, and yet, we all know when we are feeling good and able to deal with life and all that it brings – and equally when the opposite is true and we feel we are not coping. This feeling of not coping can trigger many other emotions and lead to our feeling stressed and overwhelmed, with potentially more serious consequences for our health if we don’t find the support we need from ourselves and/or others.

In teaching, particularly in relation to the way schools are judged, OFSTED – the regulatory body that comes in to check how schools are performing in England – is now under pressure to also look at how mental health is tackled within a school setting. The focus up until very recently has always been on the students, but now the spotlight is broadening to include teachers and all staff. When you put the term ‘teacher burnout’ into a google search, hundreds of articles come up, confirming that this is a very topical concern nationally, as well as internationally and across all education sectors.

As a society, could it be that we are starting to realise that simply being able to function and carry out our daily tasks is not enough and that the human being inside the fragile body we live in needs to take a deeper look at ‘how’ we are living?

On a personal note, I left the teaching profession thinking that it was the job that was the problem. I was stressed, overwhelmed and got to a point where I thought it was either the job or me, and so took the decision to leave. Recently I met a new member of staff who has started work as an administrator in a school. On chatting to her I found out she used to be a teacher, and when I asked why she decided on a career change she said she wanted a better work/life balance. Figures published in October 2015 “showed nearly a third of teachers who began work in England’s state schools in 2010 were not in the classroom five years later. About one in eight (13 per cent) had left after just a year.” Excessive workload and exhaustion were cited as two of the main causes for this.

So, what do teachers say is the way forward when wellbeing is discussed? Workload is definitely high on the agenda, together with a feeling of not being trusted and having to meet unrealistic expectations. Teachers now feel the extra administrative burden of having to provide documented evidence to prove what they have done to support the progress of their students.

At a recent school I worked in, when we had our first wellbeing meeting many were glad of the opportunity to simply come together and talk. The staffroom was usually an empty place because many teachers ate lunch at their desks while answering emails and planning the afternoon lessons. Ideas about yoga and exercise classes came up, as did art classes for staff after school and workshops run by the music department. I eagerly set these up at the start of the autumn term, however no one came. Ironically the reason from everyone was, ‘I don’t have the time.’

Our knee-jerk reaction to wellbeing is often to look outside of ourselves and find more things to ‘do’ to help us feel better. Then we feel guilty for not doing them and give up on the idea before we ever give a new habit a chance.

It’s a bit like new year’s resolutions: is it possible, scratching beneath the surface, we come to a deeper underlying reason behind our not finding the time? Is it possible we don’t value ourselves enough to make the time? And is it easier to blame management than to look at small changes we can make as individuals that will make a difference to our wellbeing? That was certainly the case for me.

One of the things that has made a big difference to my day is having a lunch break. It wasn’t a choice I made for myself and I was in fact furious at first that it was enforced. Our head teacher made it a rule that no food was to be eaten in classrooms. How was I going to plan my afternoon lessons? What about all the work I would not be able to complete because of being forced to eat in the staffroom? Many colleagues felt the same way at first, but it didn’t take long before we all noticed the benefits of getting away from our desks and eating together with others. I have gotten to know so many staff I rarely spoke to before and my mood is always lifted by the interactions I have over lunch.

There is no doubt that workload is an issue in the pressurised world of work that we live in, where targets are a key feature in most organisations. And there is nothing wrong with targets and wanting to provide an excellent service, but should it be at the expense of our bodies? Is this the way we want to live – driven by targets, over exhausted, and then wanting quick fixes like coffee, sugary foods, alcohol etc. to keep us going for now, but which may well not help us in the long run? Are we waiting for the weekend, or our next holiday – getting over the next hurdle with the promise of some respite on the other side? What small steps can we take as individuals that will truly make a difference? And are we willing to start putting our wellbeing first?

What will that look like to you?

Reference:

  • [1]

    https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/what-wellbeing-how-can-we-measure-it-and-how-can-we-support-people-improve-it

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  • By Debra Douglas

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