Lowering stress levels, balancing wellbeing and building emotional resilience

By Ross McWilliam, founder of MindsetPro and Claire Kelly, Director of Curricula and Training at Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP)

As part of the East London and Essex Education Conference and Exhibition 2020, hosted by HES, both Ross and Claire will be providing senior leaders and business managers with practical hints and tips when it comes to building resilience in a challenging and stressful education landscape, and the role that mindfulness can play in positively impacting staff wellbeing. Here, they share some insight into how senior leaders can foster a more positive, supportive and inclusive environment and mindset.

Teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain. The Government’s Teacher Wellbeing Report highlights that while teachers love their profession, enjoy teaching and seeing pupils flourish, the negative elements outweigh the positives. With staff suffering from high workloads, lacking work-life balance, access to limited resources, in some instances, and a perceived lack of support from senior leaders, this often leads to poor occupational wellbeing for many teachers.

There has subsequently been an increased emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, with a greater focus on teacher wellbeing in Ofsted’s latest Inspection Framework. Quite often, mentality and attitude trickles from the top down, so therefore, a negative mindset can have a significant impact on student wellbeing too.

Findings on overall support from senior leaders in the wellbeing report were mixed. Senior leaders were seen to positively contribute to wellbeing by some. When this is the case, senior leaders support a positive work culture, are accessible to staff, listen to them, value them as professionals, recognise their work and support their autonomy. However, on the flip side, teachers also reported that senior leaders are thought to contribute to poor wellbeing. This is in instances when there is poor communication with staff, an autocratic management style, workload pressure, and insufficient support and collaboration with staff. Therefore, what can be done in order to minimise the risks, and ensure schools foster a compassionate and positive culture, which supports and retains the best talent?

Starting with Staff

Firstly, it’s important to be aware of mental health; self-esteem, confidence and resilience are key components which underpin positive mental health. These are key components from which good mental health and wellbeing can be grown and nurtured. However, in the first instance, how do we take personal responsibility to do this, and in the second instance, what can senior leaders do to nurture this desired outcome?

On a personal level, simply being aware that these emotional components are a strength. Each are connected to one another, and each must be continually nurtured as you can’t ringfence their benefits. So, simple activities such as recognising your own qualities and achievements is a great starting point.  Better still, get a trusted friend to write down your qualities and  achievements as the power of peers can be a very valid, accurate and safe feedback mechanism. I sometimes ask delegates to do this in a card format, but I also ask delegates to write these down during training, so at the end, many positives can be identified.

In terms of senior leader input, a great starting place is dedicated staff wellbeing sessions. The aim is to share useful wellbeing advice, share challenges and even show vulnerability by disclosing some of the personal challenges that are affecting us. Senior leaders can build on this by creating the platform for staff to be more independent ie a staff wellbeing group that talks regularly and meets at least every month, either inside school, or outside. Some PPA time, and or resources, go a long way to supporting a group of this type.

There has been ample research into mindfulness training and positive outcomes for young people. While this is of course both important and beneficial, the wellbeing of those working with young people should also be a focus. After all, energy, focus and positivity are reflective both in the individual and the work they deliver. And so, while mindfulness can of course help alleviate teacher stress, the added side effects include greater mental space and focus, room for creativity and increased teaching efficacy.

Therefore, the key is to start with staff. Existing research indicates that the regular practice of mindfulness can help teachers and senior leaders experience a reduction of stress, fewer sleep difficulties, increased emotional self-awareness and compassion, and greater potential to create positive changes both in and out of the classroom.

Managing stress

Secondly, it’s important to look at stress; you need to audit the stress, understand how it’s triggered, and how it can be harnessed. Clearly, stress can be quite personal and very emotional. This is why a more detached and objective measure might be useful to give a rating of stress levels. There are many stress audits out there, and I personally use one that relates directly to school challenges. Doing various pre and post measures which straddle various interventions, is a sensible way to get objective feedback on wellbeing progress. Perhaps as crucial, is an identification of triggers in the workplace. I use a simple proforma of triggers with values of severity. This almost always gives a clearer picture of what is ‘bugging us’ and then we can decide on the best ways to reduce, if not eliminate these stresses.

Collectively sharing ideas and experiences can also be a very effective way of discovering how to reduce your stresses. Peer feedback is regarded as very accurate, often more accurate then personal observations of self. Therefore, I am always looking at ways to use peer communications – it’s a very powerful way to support each other and build trust.

At its most basic level, mindfulness provides a platform for teachers to focus and listen to what students have to say. It allows individuals to pick up on subtle signals that a student may be struggling or on a point of discovery and needs gently nudging this way or that to help them extend their understanding.

There is also evidence suggesting mindfulness training for school staff can develop an increased capacity to decentre from strong or difficult thoughts and emotions and improve professional self-efficacy. This in turn is linked to perseverance with challenging situations or students and improved pupil behaviour. For example, rather than reacting on impulse, which in hindsight may not always be the best approach, what mindfulness training can do is help teachers to recognise those signs of reactivity, ground them long enough to be able to step back from any urges to shout or humiliate, and then re-engage calmly and with a sense of self-efficacy.

Engaging with staff and introducing several simple steps and methods including mindfulness will all help contribute to reduced reactivity, improved emotional resilience and lower stress levels. Putting processes in place will help develop greater mental space and clarity, and the potential to be more confident, creative and fully present when teaching.