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Three steps to wellbeing success

Wellbeing is not the latest HR fad, it delivers demonstrable benefits to a business, as our work at United Learning is showing

Teacher wellbeing

It’s hardly surprising that wellbeing has become a critical focus for those of us working in the schools sector. One critical element is teacher workload and the strains placed on a largely young workforce, many of whom have to cope in often challenging work environments.

National data on the teaching profession raises major concerns. In 2016 35,000 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement, with workload cited as the main reason. Add to this the fact that the national applications to train to teach have dropped by a third this year. We face a huge recruitment and retention crisis in the sector.

Although we’re still in the early stages at my own organisation, I believe that what we have accomplished so far has significant implications for both our own and other sectors.

Focus on the needs of the business when introducing wellbeing programmes and be evidenced-based in the approach

So here are three steps we have taken in the introduction of our own wellbeing programmes which I am sure others could benefit from, as they either introduce their own programmes or consider the first steps they need to take towards improved workforce wellbeing.

1. Show that it really matters

Straight from the outset we wanted to show that, from the very top of the organisation, we recognised the issues and were determined to change things. Our first move, though it may seem quite a small step, was to introduce one extra training day into each of the three school terms specifically for planning time for teachers. Schools could decide for themselves what they could do with these days, though many have decided to use it at the end of each term to allow teachers to plan for the coming term, meaning they don’t head off into the break with a heavy planning workload still to be tackled. Instead, they can have some time for themselves in the holidays, to both recharge and relax. The chief executive wrote to every teacher to inform them of this and we introduced it in Autumn 2017. The initial feedback may well have been anecdotal, but it was enormously positive from the outset and we have seen improvements in our staff survey feedback on balance of home and work and wellbeing. 

2. Establish a sustainable wellbeing culture on the ground

As with many major change projects, we wanted to test first, then roll out once we’d learned the best and most successful approaches for ourselves. Once again, we worked from first principles, as each school is very different, with different challenges and opportunities. Senior management are also more comfortable releasing budget for a trial before full roll out.

Working with professor Sir Cary Cooper’s consultancy Robertson Coopers, which is an expert in health and wellbeing, we started with an initial cohort of eight schools. Sitting down with the senior leaders of each, we got them thinking hard about where they were, taking feedback from their staff surveys, and then developing change programmes and a range of key performance indicators. Among the key actions are work on building awareness of such important areas as diet, exercise, relaxation techniques and the importance of sleep – all crucial factors in wellbeing, but all too easy to overlook.

We now have 20 schools in the latest cohort employing 2,000 people, roughly a third of our workforce, and the focus is on developing a sustainable culture of wellbeing, including mentoring and coaching. That means making sure that all staff have the right skills, and that we create a culture where people are comfortable talking through issues and problems they may have, rather than bottling them up or feeling they’ve somehow ‘failed’.

We’re also looking actively at workload reduction, identifying and then removing tasks which could be unnecessary or better done in other ways, or reviewing the school calendar to spot and manage the peak times, for example. All these strategies are being shared across the participating schools, through a dedicated intranet as well as regular catch up meetings, but each school is free to adopt and adapt the strategies to fit its own circumstances. It isn’t –- and can’t ever be –a one-size-fits-all approach. By next year, we’ll have over half our schools participating.

3. Resilience: sharing the skills to succeed

Many people come to teaching with a highly dedicated and altruistic mindset. When they find, perhaps, that for many reasons their ambition isn’t always matched by the reality on the ground, it’s easy to become discouraged. You want so much to develop and encourage the children, you sometimes forget about your own basic needs. So, alongside the steps above, we’re working towards building what we call ‘resilience’.

We’re developing our own people to act as trainers, working with our trainee and newly qualified teachers to not only improve their skills, but giving continual feedback and support when it’s most needed, and equipping those individuals and supporting them so they can work better, while achieving – and maintaining – a more even work-life balance. Once again, though early days, the pilot schemes are providing excellent feedback.   Our trainees are needing much less pastoral support in their training year as a result.

Business benefits

The work is already producing benefits for the business.  We have seen significant reductions in sickness absence in the participating schools along with significant reductions in sick pay and cover costs.   Employee feedback is really strong with better engagement levels as well as more positive feedback on wellbeing and balancing work and home.   The retention of good teachers is what this is ultimately all about, because good and experienced teachers make all the difference to outcomes for pupils and some of the participating schools have already seen significant reductions in staff turnover.

That leads me to one final important point – especially for those who may feel that all this work in education doesn’t have a potential to impact their own workplace. That is the need to focus on the needs of the business when introducing wellbeing programmes and be evidenced based in the approach. By focusing on the core business issues which wellbeing addresses, you can develop and prove the concept as a sound business case, not just as the latest passing HR fad or flavour of the month. Not to do so would be to denigrate workplace wellbeing, which our own evidence proves is far from a fad, but an essential part of not just our work in the education sector, but every workplace, whatever challenges your business might be facing.

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