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5 Steps: Supporting staff wellbeing in schools

The 5 Steps framework, recently launched by the Anna Freud Centre, calls for change in how schools and colleges support the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils and staff. ‘Supporting staff’ is one of the five steps. With new school closures because of the pandemic, Sinéad McBrearty reflects on the importance of staff wellbeing.

As we start 2021, it’s the perfect time to be thinking about the support we give to teachers and staff in schools. They have been through an incredibly challenging year, and 2021 will continue to make huge demands on those working in education. The wellbeing of all school staff must be at the forefront of our minds – if children, and indeed wider society, are to thrive.

Education Support published its Teacher Wellbeing Index at the end of 2020. Unsurprisingly, the results showed that stress levels rocketed as schools returned in September 2020 (84% responded as ‘stressed’), and many teachers had considered leaving the profession due to its effect on their wellbeing. Workload was the primary reason given for this. It also showed that symptoms of poor mental wellbeing are on the rise, including insomnia, tearfulness and difficulty concentrating.

There isn’t a profession that hasn’t been affected by the struggles brought on by coronavirus. But teachers were already working within a context which includes rising child poverty[1] and an increased number of homeless children, and those in temporary accommodation, in Britain.[2] These issues existed before, but have been compounded by the pandemic. The gap in learning and attainment between children of the highest and lowest income families has been further widened.[3] These factors affect children’s life chances, and education staff face them every day.

Support for teachers, therefore, has become an issue of supporting social chances and of national recovery. This generation of children will be significantly affected by experiencing a global pandemic during their compulsory education. It is vital that those responsible for giving them the best chance, and helping them to imagine their own futures, are well enough to keep showing up - both physically and emotionally.

Within the 5 Steps framework, the Anna Freud Centre talks about ways schools can promote workplace wellbeing:

Conducting annual wellbeing surveys
The simplest way to understand what teachers and school staff need to support their mental health is to ask them. However, our Teacher Wellbeing Index results showed 58% of education institutions do not regularly survey staff to establish their levels of wellbeing.

At a minimum, schools should be carrying out annual wellbeing surveys in order to better understand:

  • How teachers and school staff are feeling
  • What is driving good and poor mental health (including asking staff how they feel about work practices, culture, engagement and management)
  • How supported teachers and school staff feel
  • Any additional support they need for their mental health and wellbeing

However, it is important to point out that an annual survey has limitations – only capturing a brief snapshot of the entire year. Introducing regular pulse surveys, and consistently creating opportunities for two-way dialogue, can significantly increase the ability of a school to establish levels of wellbeing.

Providing training for staff
In many cases, staff with responsibility for mental health and wellbeing are not clinical professionals. Understandably, this can lead to a lack of confidence when it comes to having conversations about this subject.

Schools need to provide adequate training, so that staff can:

  • Better understand what is meant by mental health and wellbeing
  • Promote and improve wellbeing across the workforce
  • Spot the signs if somebody is not feeling well, and have the necessary skills to support staff who might be experiencing poor mental health
  • Carry out positive and proactive performance management

Training shouldn’t be limited to those with responsibility for mental health and wellbeing. 53% of education professionals considered that they did not have enough guidance about their mental health and wellbeing at work. Improving the mental health literacy of the whole education workforce is essential if stigma is to be reduced and more conversations across the sector are to be encouraged.

Promoting mental health and wellbeing
Our Teacher Wellbeing Index shows that 57% of education professionals do not feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress and/or mental health issues with their employer. By promoting mental health and wellbeing at school, leaders will help to remind staff that taking care of their mental health is as important as taking care of their physical health, and that talking about it is normal.

School leaders can promote mental health and wellbeing by:

  • Embedding conversations about mental health in induction, training, 1:1 conversations and team meetings
  • Training mental health champions, with staff at all levels talking openly about mental health
  • Introducing Wellbeing Action Plans for all staff
  • Raising awareness across the whole school community (including with parents and carers), eg. focusing activity around mental health awareness days

Ensuring support structures are identified and signposted
In our Teacher Wellbeing Index, education professionals displayed much higher levels of depression than the general population. They also reported large increases in symptoms of poor wellbeing, such as difficulty concentrating, insomnia and tearfulness. Without the right support structures in place, and made accessible, many staff experiencing these symptoms may simply continue to ‘just get on’. They may be less likely to seek help and the longer-term impact on their mental health may be much worse.

Schools can ensure support structures are clearly identified and signposted by:

  • Creating a dedicated mental health and wellbeing hub online
  • Displaying signposting information in physical spaces
  • Creating a signposting menu that is shared as part of staff inductions
  • Sending out regular communications signposting to the support available
  • Ensuring education professionals have access to supervision as a safe space to discuss issues (currently, only 8% of staff have access to this)

The current crisis has shone a spotlight on the pressures faced within schools, but there may be a danger that staff wellbeing is not seen as a priority. It must lie at the heart of policy and practice in all school settings, not just to improve standards – but also as a humane response to a dedicated group of professionals preparing children and young people for the future.

If you or a colleague need to talk to someone, Education Support’s free helpline is staffed by accredited counsellors, and is open 24/7 to anyone working in the education sector. Our team is great at listening and helping people to get a different perspective on difficult issues, or to make sense of unfamiliar feelings. You don’t need to be in a crisis to call. Find out more at or follow us @EdSupportUK.