Yoga Fridays, group meditation, biscuits and cake in the staff room. These are all genuinely lovely things that workplaces can offer BUT…. Well-being is so much more complicated than a schedule of self-help groups and a selection of sugary snacks.
Most people working in schools these days are suffering from long-term fatigue.
This is a combination of repeated burnout, vicarious trauma, compassion exhaustion, high prolonged stress levels and sleeplessness. You can add the inevitable home stressors in too.
We hear lots of phrases to do will well-being bandied about but how useful are they really?
The truth is, when someone is running on the very last dregs of energy and crawling through each day they may have neither the perspective nor the capacity for these. Sometimes it is the responsibility of employers to intervene and phrases such as those above can actually DAMAGE people who are struggling. The added pressure of feeling like your wellbeing is entirely your responsibility is often too much and the guilt associated can trigger a breakdown as feelings of worthlessness and helplessness take over.
So what CAN we do?
I like the following acronym:
How do you lead?
This may be more than just a one-off listening. You may need to even employ or source a professional “listener” such as a therapist or coach. People in difficult mental spaces often have an overwhelming amount going on in their heads. Safe spaces to talk without fear of judgement or recriminations are essential. This is why having an impartial individual do the listening can really help.
According to Psychiatry.org, 75% of people who engage regularly with talking therapy find it effective.
It may also be useful to have an anonymous “feedback” survey with some regularity. A key point here though is that it is VITAL to respond and react to this feedback fairly. Being heard and then not listened to is worse than not being heard at all!! Criticism can be hard to process but listening to those who are struggling and trying to understand why can be a brilliant starting point for addressing any systemic change that is needed.
The mindset of those struggling mentally can often be very negative and pessimistic. The focus may be very much on what cannot be achieved rather than what has already been done or what is manageable. When we focus on perceived failings it drains our energy levels even more.
Try and offer quick “rewards” or acknowledgement. Everyone flourishes with encouragement. Simple things like noticing someone who is tired and thanking them for being there and for their hard work can boost the productivity of even the most exhausted team member. Studies by Harvard Business School show that praise and recognition reduce stress and encourage creativity.
Find the passion too. People often lose sight of what they are doing something FOR. When drudgery and obligation crush us with an ever-growing weight it can be hard to ignite the spark that made us want to do something in the first place. Leaders can be the oxygen that empowers those struggling. Offer CPD that is passion focused. Encourage training and time spent renewing people’s genuine love of something.
Help people find a way to say “No”. Sometimes we need permission to prioritise ourselves. When you are burned out it is likely that your self-worth is at an all-time low too. This means everything comes before YOU in the to-do pile. Having someone say “you can say NO to that” or “do this for yourself first please!” Is often just enough to give someone the agency to put themselves first.
A lot of well-being advice focuses on “self-care” and, whilst it is true that change needs to come from the individual, sometimes someone struggling deeply may need assistance to know what that looks like and how to enact it.
It may take someone with perspective to suggest any of the following:
Helping someone to help themselves can feel frustrating as it feels as though some people simply “won’t”. Remember though, much as a car with no petrol “can’t” start, people with only the last vestige of energy are often unable to muster that focus. Be patient and scaffold their success as all educators have been trained to do!
In a system with very little “slack” this can be tricky. Knowing your team is essential. Being on the lookout for signs of emotional strain is vital.
Sometimes advice and agency promotion simply isn’t enough and people need someone to take the reins in order to get them back on track. A good leader should know when to step in and say, “No. Someone else is doing that. You are taking a break!”.
The best team I have ever worked in was one where senior leadership would have a raft of “cover” material and could choose to free up teaching staff if they felt they needed a break. Having someone knock on your door on a 5 lesson day and say, “I’m freeing you up period 3 with KS3. It’s all sorted. Take a break”, is like winning the lottery!! It can be a juggle with timetables and staffing but even once a fortnight bringing in a supply teacher would probably save you money in the long run on long-term absences!
If I had to add anything to the above it would be this:
When we care so deeply about what we do it can create a microclimate in which stress and obligations become disproportionately “important”. Reminders that life outside of work is MORE IMPORTANT should be regular and tangible. Encourage people to prioritise their home life and the things they love. We only get one crack at this life (unless you are a believer in reincarnation!) and to spend it bent double under the weight of work is simply not ok. Do not allow guilt, competitions of martyrdom or invidious comparisons to make your workplace feel overly demanding. Set a precedent for self-care by modelling it. Encourage balance by demonstrating it yourself.
If you are in a situation where you are feeling too burned out yourself to do this then start by finding a “listener” and practice what you intend to preach!
Take care of yourself and others! “