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Seven tips for maintaining the wellbeing of returning staff
The ‘new normal’ could mean staff returning to school after long absences. Mike Lamb outlines ways of helping them transition smoothly back into the school community
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As pupils return to the classroom across the UK, the expectation is that teachers and support staff will be returning as well.
Many staff have never been away, from teachers and their colleagues providing online learning to the many staff ensuring teaching and care for vulnerable children and children of critical workers.
But other staff may have been furloughed or confined to their homes for other reasons, including being vulnerable themselves. Everyone’s experiences throughout lockdown has been different – some have even been positive, but many people have found it challenging.
It is important for school management teams to acknowledge that it has been difficult and that staff, as well as pupils, must be supported as they transition back into their workplace.
Communication from school leaders has never been more important, and this includes maintaining communication with staff, despite the acute pressures to maintain effective communication with parents and pupils.
If in-person gatherings are being avoided, and ‘email overload’ is an issue, using video and other media may make communications feel more personal.
Saying thanks to staff is also key. Whether they have thrown themselves into online teaching or been furloughed, all have contributed in their own way.
This thanks should be genuine, targeted and delivered personally where possible, but small gifts sent to staff members at home or videos of the community thanking each other are other tangible ways to exemplify this.
Ensure staff are welcomed back as part of the community, whether they are teachers, cleaners, kitchen staff or receptionists.
Staff should feel listened to and their feedback heard. Regular SMT drop-ins, genuine open-door policies, visible middle leaders and making time for staff voices, such as wellbeing surveys, all help to develop a culture of listening and collegiality.
It is not only pupils who have missed social interaction. Most school staff report missing the ‘water cooler moments’ and the daily uplifts of speaking and laughing with their colleagues. Positive and regular interaction helps boosts everyone’s mood and helps staff feel more connected.
Social events that encourage mixing between individuals and groups help everyone to once again bond as a team, whether this is via an online quiz or an outdoor picnic, depending on your local context, situation and restrictions.
It is obviously crucial to develop effective systems that allow staff to feel, and be, safe in their roles.
For example, developing extensive facilities for testing pupils and staff, and encouraging appropriate use of PPE, sanitary practices and ventilation will help people feel better able to do their jobs.
Explain the rationale behind important procedures and ensure everyone is clear about their responsibilities. Developing an ‘all in this together’ attitude will lead to a desire to contribute to keeping everybody safe and in school.
Although there should be high expectations of staff in all schools, they should feel that they can get things wrong, in the same way that we encourage pupils to make mistakes and learn from them.
Mental health conversations are now much more common and open in the school environment, but staff must feel empowered to speak up if they are struggling. A culture where positive mental health is celebrated and problems are openly discussed encourages staff to step forward when they need help.
Staff not only need to feel listened to but also that they can access support if they need it.
Senior and middle leaders who are well trained or experienced in managing staff, alongside clear line management models, will allow this to happen effectively. These managers should carefully oversee staff workloads to ensure too much is not being asked of individuals.
Buddies, mentors and coaches within the community may also provide this support, as will groups set up to share best practice and problem solve.
Those who need an extra level of support could be offered somebody to talk to, such as a counsellor or someone who can direct staff towards more professional or specialist help.
Help staff to identify when they are finding work hard and to know what they need to do about it.
Encourage them to take part in physical activity, whether remotely (for example, in online sessions, using apps such as Strava or by organising online events) or in real life (for example, by joining walking, running or cycling groups). This promotes other positive coping strategies and sends the right message to everyone.
It is even better, of course, when senior management models these activities, as it gives permission for others to do the same, as and when time and circumstances allow.
Linking wellbeing to CPD goals may also be a useful way to encourage staff to better look after themselves.
So, through effective listening and communication and by providing a safe, supportive, open and positive working environment to return to, we all give ourselves the best chance of success while transitioning back to our ‘new normal’.
More useful resources
Education Support is a charity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of the entire education workforce. It also offers a 24-hour support helpline.
The NHS A–Z of mental health charities and organisations is a great place to look for support for many types of mental health conditions.
How to improve self-care: Kelly Hannaghan shares her ideas around teaching self-care techniques to increase productivity and emotional harmony.
Managing anxiety in challenging times: Elizabeth Holmes looks at what to do about anxiety and stress, and where to go for help.
Wellbeing podcast: teacher mental health explores the causes of poor teacher mental health, and what can be done to improve staff wellbeing.
Effective self-care is a self-study training course that guides you through the process of how to look after your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Video: Managing the mental health of all during challenging times: David Beeney shares ways to improve mental health and resilience, stay connected with teams and remain productive and purposeful.
Last Updated:09 Mar 2021