Create a culture that actively promotes staff wellbeing: five steps

Wellbeing adviser Thérèse Hoyle shares a five point plan for improving staff wellbeing in your school

Author details

Thérèse Hoyle is an educational consultant and executive coach with over 20 years’ experience. She advises schools and teachers on aspects of behaviour management, anti-bullying, social, emotional and mental health needs of children and teens,...

In my role as advisor on the Wellbeing Award for Schools, one of the common challenges I see schools facing is how to improve staff wellbeing.

Why does culture matter?

When it comes to supporting the wellbeing of school staff, the culture matters and most school leaders know that organisational culture is a key element of their school’s success.

A positive school culture has an impact on:

  1. staff wellbeing
  2. stress reduction (for pupils and staff)
  3. staff retention
  4. pupil achievement.

The impact of a positive workplace culture

In sum, a positive workplace is more successful over time because it increases positive emotions and well-being… It buffers against negative experiences such as stress, thus improving employees’ ability to bounce back from challenges and difficulties while bolstering their health... When organizations develop positive, virtuous cultures they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and employee engagement.

Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive, Harvard Business Review

So what does a school culture that actively promotes staff wellbeing look like?

Have you ever walked into a school and known that you want to work there? It was maybe a feeling, how you were treated from the time you signed in at reception to the moment that someone said goodbye.

Everyone has a role and we all need to take responsibility for how we show up each day

Or maybe, you immediately got a sense of the school climate by watching the interactions between people; the teachers, pupils and school leaders were happy to be there, and all treated each other with kindness and respect.

Creating a healthy climate is frequently dependent on the senior management team, their vision and values. However, everyone has a role and we all need to take responsibility for how we show up each day.

Want to evaluate and improve your culture? Follow the steps below to build a healthy school culture that fosters wellbeing.

Step 1: Conduct a wellbeing survey

Firstly, it’s important to assess the wellbeing of staff.  On the Optimus wellbeing award all school staff fill out a questionnaire to assess their wellbeing. These can be very useful in helping measure effectiveness.
There are many excellent examples of staff wellbeing surveys online. So, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. See Writing a staff wellbeing survey: six tips for examples and advice on conducting the survey.

Step 2: Create a culture of kindness

The Irish proverb goes: ‘kindness costs nothing and means everything.’

Did you know that there is scientific evidence that being kind can improve your own health and wellbeing?

Studies have shown that kindness releases feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. It can ease anxiety and stress – even prevent illness. (For more on this, see 6 Science-Backed Ways Being Kind Is Good for Your Health and the science of kindness video.)

Here are some of my tried and trusted suggestions for creating a culture of kindness.

  • Create or follow a kindness calendar.
  • Handwrite a note to someone.
  • Say good morning to everyone you meet.
  • Compliment the first three people you talk to.
  • Mr or Mrs Magic Kindness: staff member names are put in a hat and everyone pulls out a name. For the term, it is your job to be kind to this person. This may include making them coffee, saying hello in the morning, seeing how they are, writing a positive message to them, complimenting them and so on.
  • Celebrate World Kindness Day.
  • Create a ‘staff shout out’ board in the staffroom (search online or try Pinterest for examples).

Step 3:  Be a radiator, not a drain

Oprah Winfrey once said that people can be divided into two camps: radiators and drains. Radiators beam warmth, kindness, love, happiness and enthusiasm. They smile when you walk into a room, are genuinely interested in others and make you feel good about yourself. Radiators bring out the very best in people.

No-one wants to be around a drain!

Drains have a more negative outlook on life and their glass is always half-empty. They moan, blame, complain, find fault, play the victim role and generally suck the life out of you and the school.

Reflect on your behaviour: are you a radiator or a drain? We all have off days, but if you feel you’re more a drain than a radiator, try becoming more solution-focused and taking better care of yourself. Remember: no-one wants to be around a drain!

Step 4: Create a culture of ongoing renewal and self-care

In my role as executive coach and wellbeing adviser, I regularly see headteachers and staff burned-out and exhausted.  Many are operating from a cycle of sacrifice, not one of ongoing renewal and self-care. They tell me they have depleted themselves for the sake of others: pupils, staff, families, friends.

However, the irony is that by neglecting their basic needs and putting themselves last – they have hindered their ability to properly care for those people they long to serve.

When the challenges of school life come hurtling towards you, you will have some foundations with which to deal with them

I believe we need to put on our own oxygen mask before we help others. (I’m sure you’ve seen the preflight demonstration – ‘before you help others please secure your own oxygen mask.’)

By taking the time and care to secure your oxygen mask, when the challenges of school life come hurtling towards you, you will have some foundations with which to deal with them.

Practical strategies for renewal and self-care

Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Cut down on refined and processed foods, sugar, fried fatty foods, additives and stimulants like tea, coffee and alcohol. Instead eat more wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, whole wheat pasta, seafood, free range/organic poultry and dairy products.

Exercise. Start an exercise programme – walking, running, swimming, aerobics, dancing or yoga and follow it regularly two or more times a week. Medical research indicates the better shape you are in, the easier you will find it to handle stress.

Take a digital holiday. In his book The Stress Solution, Dr Rangan Chatterjee suggests a day or a few hours without your phone. (I’ve tried this myself and felt immediate benefits to my mental health.)

Alternatively, take breaks from the digital screens and replace them with rituals of self-care, like:

  • a bath
  • legs up the wall with eyes covered for 5-10 minutes
  • a five-minute foot massage
  • listening to relaxing music with a cup of tea.

Practice mindfulness or meditation. To get started, check out the Calm and Headspace Apps. If you want to go deeper, Mindfulness in Schools recommend an eight-week course.

Create a wellbeing week (where you think about staff wellbeing as well as pupils). Offer a range of activities for staff to join in with after school, for example bingo with prizes such as massage and spa vouchers, a staff bake-off for a mental health charity and Zumba.

Step 5: Communicate

Effective communication is essential for a healthy and positive school culture and an integral element in a school’s success.

Effective communication in a school fosters transparency, trust, child and adult wellbeing, healthy employee morale, positive relationships with parents, staff, governors and children and it also ensures there is less conflict, negativity and tension.

So how can you cultivate positive communication in your school?

Respectful listening. Remember that our tone, pitch and nonverbal body language can say as much as our words. If you need to disagree, do it respectfully. I’m sure we’ve all been in staff meetings where we’ve witnessed the rolling of eyes or look of disregard, which made us just want to curl up in a small heap! 

Develop coaching cultures and pupil voice. Coaching cultures (and circle time forums with children) support the development of active listening skills, questioning and problem-solving. When we create listening cultures, we also create cultures of learning and stakeholders feel valued, understood and that their opinions matter.

Ways to keep communication healthy in your school

  • Morning notices, emails and meetings are essential to effectively communicate the agenda of the day to everyone. It’s important that every staff member is treated equally, and no one feels neglected or left out.
  • Staff coaching circles. Once a half term organise a meeting about staff issues, not necessarily curriculum. These coaching circles give staff an opportunity to share their challenges, ideas and concepts in an open forum and come up with innovative solutions which can benefit everyone. Remember: discussions are vital before implementing any new ideas.
  • Weekly circle times for children to build active listening and problem-solving skills, so that they feel their voices can be heard and they have a say in the smooth and safe running of the school.
  • Weekly newsletter and website updates for parents and governors.
  • 1-1 coaching with senior management available for all staff and parents so that they can lend a sympathetic ear in cases of queries or challenges.
  • Staff outings. A good way to foster a culture of positive communication is to organise occasional social gatherings outside school hours which foster employee relationships. Why not put up a sign-up sheet in the staff room where staff can register their interest in a range of activities?

Children pick up on your tone and body language. It’s essential that we role model healthy and effective communication as part of creating a positive, respectful school culture.

Finally, for some more wellbeing ideas, please do download my wellbeing toolkit.

Want to hear more from Thérèse on creating a culture of whole school wellbeing? Head over to the Optimus wellbeing podcast.

Head over to the In-House Training area for self-study courses on effective self-care, positive relationships and understanding stress.

Last Updated: 
21 Jan 2020