December 2021 edition: Never has the Wellbeing of Leaders been more Important

Never has the Wellbeing of Leaders been more Important

Twenty months of Covid-19 is a long time for people to operate in ‘crisis response.’

The psychological stress is significant. The recent Teacher Wellbeing Index suggests that up to 84% of senior leaders in education are stressed. Levels of stress and anxiety remain unsustainably high – but a helpful finding of the survey is that our schools and trusts have improved staff awareness of wellbeing policies, as well as their implementation. Nevertheless, crisis-related stress levels are very high.

Collegiality, appreciation, and purpose

So what can we do? In a recent seminar for CST members, Sinéad McBrearty Chief Executive of the charity Education Support which has been supporting teacher and education staff wellbeing for 145 years, talked about being aware of the amount of ‘petrol in our tanks.’ She focused on building good habits – and the importance of collegiality, appreciation, and purpose.

  • Collegiality: the sense of being supported by others in a collegial network.
  • Appreciation: the importance of feeling that one’s work is appreciated and of giving appreciation to others – being explicit about the value that our staff create.
  • Purpose: the significance of feeling connected to why we do the work we do and having a sense of self-efficacy.

In other words, the cultures we create as leaders are fundamentally important protective factors in this time of very high work-related stress.

Leader wellbeing

Much or all of the task of creating these supportive cultures and helping colleagues through the time of stress falls to leaders. So leader wellbeing becomes essential. The old adage of the oxygen mask is helpful – you cannot help others if you are not taking care of yourself. As Sinéad pointed out, self-care is not self-indulgence. Self-care is absolutely essential – a responsibility you have not just to yourself but to those you lead.

Crisis-related psychological stress can have an impact on your ability to make good decisions – and right now, your staff and pupils are relying on you to be able to make good decisions. So the key message here, is take care of yourself. The healthy version of yourself is the one we want and need.

There is a message for boards as employers here too. We have published guidance for Trust boards on ways to take care of leaders.

An employer's duty of care is wide-ranging. It covers an organisation’s legal and ethical duty to prevent physical and psychological harm to staff, and to promote wellbeing. If work negatively affects one of your employees' wellbeing, then you should consider that to be a duty of care issue.

Of course, employers have a duty of care to all staff. The DfE has published the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, which CST contributed to along with other national organisations. Leaders share this duty of care to staff, and typically give their all to look after their staff, but this responsibility is more acute during the pandemic.

As one leader said, "I have had to become more directive. I have to be the person who has the answers and creates confidence.” This leader went on to explore the burdens of this during the novel situation of COVID-19 when she is living with fears and anxieties about ‘getting it wrong.’ The burden of leadership is significant. And the wellbeing of leaders has never been more important.

CST’s guidance offers four ways in which boards as employers can support leader wellbeing:

  • The power of reassurance
  • Managing priorities and sharing the burden of risk
  • Paying attention to mental wellbeing
  • Creating the conditions for ‘good work’

The policy context – bringing the medium term into view

But not all of this is down to leaders or their boards. Sinéad talked about the importance of the policy environment.

At CST we are concerned that the policy context seems to be flipflopping between the short term (crisis response) and the long term (business as normal). We are, at the moment, a far cry from a ‘business as normal’ state. We need policy makers to understand this, and to ensure that we put in place policies that build ‘system sustainability’ – those are the policies that protect the sustainability of our education system and the wellbeing of leaders, staff and indeed our pupils.

So we need to bring the medium-term into view.

Much or all of the task of creating these supportive cultures and helping colleagues through the time of stress falls to leaders. So leader wellbeing becomes essential.

Leora Cruddas

As Steve Rollett, Deputy CEO, wrote in a recent email to me: "The crux of the policy issue is that, as with much of the pandemic, the working assumption has been that normality is around the corner. Despite much talk about adjusting to the ‘new normal’ aspects of education policy have been caught between two poles; on the one hand making temporary adjustments but also working from the belief that we will be through Covid-19 and things will return to a steadier pre-pandemic state. The longer-term favours continuity and stability.”

Steve continued:"Now, this might be true but there is a third dimension at play: the medium term. This is the space between the immediacy of short term ‘crisis response’ thinking and the longer-term belief in a return to normality.”

Steve and I believe it is now essential that we relieve pressure on the system, its leaders and staff by medium-term policy planning. We have started to talk to senior civil servants about this – what the mechanisms and policy solutions are to relieve some of the psychological stress on you.

As always, it is a privilege to represent you, to advocate on your behalf and to support you.