Staff wellbeing during a global pandemic – is this a Covid oxymoron?

Helen Jeys, headmistress of Manchester High School for Girls, says the hard work of heads and staff over the last year has repercussions, and shares her strategies for supporting staff

In a year like no other, we have spent, and will continue to spend, a long time focusing on the pastoral measures needed to support our students as they return to face-to-face education. This – of course – is crucial. 

The lack of social interactivity they have experienced, as well as the lack of control our students feel over their lives at the moment are, according to researchers, potentially having a physical impact on the brain.  

We need, therefore, to ensure that we are building in time for them to talk, to catch up, to feel that sense of community that is so crucial – and, in my own view, we should perhaps spend less time on the rather negative ‘students are so behind’ narrative that could, potentially, exacerbate the issues young people are experiencing.  

Nevertheless, what we do not hear that much about is the wellbeing of heads and staff, and how we can support them during – without doubt – the most challenging year of all of our careers.

I have said on many occasions to colleagues that this year has highlighted concerns about staff wellbeing in a particularly unique way; there has never been a time when staff members’ personal lives, their families and their personal fears have impacted their perception of work in quite the same way as working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And, let’s not forget that staff have worked exceptionally hard.

Whether a support member of staff juggling administrative responsibilities with supervision duties, a member of the senior leadership team trying to negotiate their way through a bewildering array of guidance (that, let’s face it, none of us have had any experience of) or a teacher providing support for children of key workers or trying their best to provide an outstanding remote educational experience while, perhaps, juggling the home-schooling of their own children, staff have really excelled themselves over the last year. And, this inevitably has repercussions.

93% of staff have reportedly said that the pandemic has made their working lives more stressful

 

Indeed, 93% of staff have reportedly said that the pandemic has made their working lives more stressful but it is not just increased workload in the way I describe above.

I think concerns have been exceptionally personal; whether it is a concern about coming into school when living with a vulnerable family member, a worry about the virus variants and whether face coverings can protect, or the feeling that one should ‘do one’s duty’ and come into work when anxiety might be impacting the ability to sleep and to function as one would want.  

And all of this in the knowledge that we want students to return to school, we want to be back in the classroom and we want things ‘back to normal’ in the best and safest way possible. It is inevitable, then, that all of these factors – and many more, I am sure – will have impacted our staff and, indeed, ourselves and other senior leaders. 

Indeed, for those of us who have attended the physical environment of school every day during both lockdowns, there is also the feeling of real isolation; none of us have been trained to lead schools with very few people in it!

We entered the profession because we loved our subjects and wanted to support young people. Working alone in a very empty school has been an isolating experience and one where we have felt, in many situations and understandably, pretty helpless.

Helping staff feel supported

I don’t have a magic wand as to how to address any of these issues. Nevertheless, there are several important strategies that have certainly helped my staff to feel supported in school. I feel very strongly that staff need to know that they are valued. I thank them (a lot – where would I be without them?) and I also ensure they are part of the conversation surrounding school life.  

We have regular meetings where staff can, openly, voice their questions and concerns about the risk assessments, for example. Staff know that they will be listened to and that their concerns will be acted upon. I work hard to ensure that we have a transparent system where staff know that their views are welcome.

Furthermore, we continue to work hard to sustain that sense of community. Competitions, like ‘Masked Reader’ on World Book Day, virtual tea breaks, the staff Zoom pub quiz organised for the end of term and many others are all crucial for staff to feel connected with each other and with the school.  

I have also enjoyed talking to staff about what lies ahead. This might sound strange when we have been focusing so much on the present. However, staff have valued group meetings where they are encouraged to step back and think about future school strategy: how are we moving the school forwards? What lies beyond Covid-19? How can we build on the successes we have experienced over the last year?

This has focused staff members’ minds on the future, what connects us as a staff and how we can build on the excellent provision of the last year as well as what we have learned as educators. In fact, this group has forged a future strategy which will be implemented in September 2021. I am proud of what we have achieved and am really looking forward to implementing this new strategy – despite how difficult the year has been!

 

Of course, for some staff – the anxiety of being in school will be too much; the medical vulnerabilities of others will mean that they have to stay home and shield (much to their chagrin).

We also must not forget the mental health of those who have been furloughed and their sense of isolation and loss of connection which can have long-lasting impact. We have worked really hard to support those staff; they are still members of our community and we need to remind them that they are still valued – even though they are not physically with us. 

There is also fantastic work being done by Employee Assistance Programmes and I would encourage all leaders to ensure that their staff can access such a scheme if they don’t already have one. Organisations such as the Education Support Partnership, Mind and teaching unions have also provided essential support. Indeed, I have found the regular emails received from my union of huge value.  

Template letters and reports of what other heads are experiencing have saved time and also reassured me that I am not on my own. They also leave me with fantastic words of wisdom and as someone who loves quotes, I save them and look at them again during those long hours on a computer. 

I particularly liked Will Rogers’, “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.” There is much to be said for looking forwards with positivity; let’s hope that today enables us to make the most of tomorrow. 


You might also like: Wellbeing in international schools report launched by ISC Research

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