Staff wellbeing: Taking care of ourselves

Written by: Ross McWilliam | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Learning how we can handle and beat stress is vital to maintaining our wellbeing as teachers and school leaders. Ross McWilliam offers some practical reflections and easy techniques

The role of any school staff member is, directly or indirectly, to support pupils and help them thrive academically, emotionally and physically. Ultimately their role is to help create independent learners and thinkers, raise aspirations and help establish a platform from which future life successes can be gained.

Yet, increasingly, the very professionals entrusted to develop our young charges are themselves struggling to maintain their own wellbeing. Against a backdrop of increasing accountability, expectations, less time and greater workload, teaching professionals are themselves becoming emotionally vulnerable to negative wellbeing. This can result in a lose-lose scenario. So, what steps can we take to change this trend?

Often, we are not aware of our own emotional health, and sometimes when we are, we go back to a tried and trusted default of “keep pushing”, “showing resilience” and “leading from the front”.

While this can take us a fair way, it may not serve us well in the long-term, especially as our minds and bodies are not quite as tolerant to stresses as we age. So, what expedient plan can we roll-out as teachers and school leaders that will solve this lack of awareness and what short-term and longer-term strategies can we implement to not only protect us, but actually help us thrive so we can enjoy a well-balanced wellbeing, both professionally and personally.

A personal wellbeing audit

A great place to start our awareness would be to take a personal wellbeing audit. Once we have this “snapshot” we can then move on to identifying the “negative triggers” that create some of our stresses, which ultimately negatively affect our wellbeing. Click the download buttons at the foot of this page for a free Workplace Wellbeing Survey and a chart to help you identify your personal stress triggers.

Second, before any strategies can be effectively used, we must always see the bigger picture of our emotional wellbeing. Protective factors such as self-esteem and emotional confidence are the foundation to establishing greater wellbeing. Once these foundations are in place, the five pillars of wellbeing can be established: diet, exercise, sleep, being connected, support systems.

Personal wellbeing starts with valuing ourselves, and continually developing our sense of worth. A simple way to recognise this is to record positive achievements and qualities in a mini-wellbeing journal. This exercise of recognising your positives, maybe once a week, is a powerful transformational action that helps you to recognise your strengths and their impact. It fuels a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another way is to either write, or verbally state, your Today Result and Tomorrow Promise. Simply put, this is where each night, you recognise three things that went well today, and then identify at least two things that will go right tomorrow.

Breathing exercises

More simple and quick stress-busting strategies revolve around breathing. Three common breathing techniques are box breathing, belly breathing and what is known as “three-six-five” (see below).

If we then use neuro-linguistic programming techniques we can blend a positive visualisation with breathing. With practice, it can be a powerful technique to reduce stress, getting us in the zone or state to perform. Basically, when we are stressed the hormone cortisol is released and too much too soon can take its toll on us. Imagine the mercury in a thermometer rising rapidly in hot weather.

One technique involves taking a deep breath and holding it momentarily. As you start to exhale do two things – squeeze the index fingers of each hand together with each thumb and imagine the cortisol thermometer going down as you exhale. This is called “anchoring”, but a more user-friendly expression might be “getting in the zone”.

Taking a breather: Simple exercises

Box breathing: Exhale through your mouth, getting all the oxygen out of your lungs. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the slow count of four. Hold your breath for another slow count of four. Exhale through your mouth for the same slow count of four. Be conscious of the feeling of the air leaving your lungs.

Belly breathing: (also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing): A deep-breathing technique that engages your diaphragm. Place one hand on your upper chest, place the other just above your navel. Breathe in slowly through your nose. You feel your stomach rise whereas the hand on your chest should remain relatively still. Breathe out through your mouth and let your belly relax.

Three-six-five: Breathe in through your nose for three seconds, hold for six seconds and breathe out through your mouth for five seconds. Try to do 10 repetitions at least three times a day, especially in the morning.


Another range of strategies that have proved popular is based around the concept of mindfulness. This is where we try and rid the mind of all thoughts, like a refocusing or an emptying.

This allows us to stop dwelling on the past or anticipating the future and be in the present, which is a healthy place to be. There are lots of mindfulness meditations out there. A simple one, for example, is the chocolate meditation – which is based around eating a chocolate bar and being in that moment (Williams & Penman, 2011)!

Finally, to bring us full circle, if you are having a bad day, or think you might have a bad day, why not try the Window of Tolerance (Dr Pooky Knightsmith, 2018). This is where we become aware of the triggers that are making us either hyper or hypo-sensitive to an event. When we are getting acutely aware of stress, or cortisol rising, and when we want to fight or take flight, we try and be mindful to what the triggers are.

Conversely, when we start to panic or freeze, or even feel dejected and want to disengage, we try to be aware of the triggers to this behaviour too. This simple reflective awareness is a quick way to recognise and adjust your thoughts and feelings so that they do not have a negative impact on your behaviours.

  • Ross McWilliam is a freelance speaker and mindsets author who works with schools and pupils. He is just about to release his second mindset book Katy Cupsworth – The Mental Health Performance Warrior. Visit &

Further information

  • M. Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, Penman & Williams, Hachette Publishing (2011).
  • The website Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World offers a range of resources, including information on the chocolate meditation:
  • Window of Tolerance: A simple tool for emotional regulation, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, 2018 (YouTube video):
  • The Amazing Journey of CUPPA, Ross McWilliam, RMW Associates Publishing (2017).
  • Download the Workplace Wellbeing Survey and a chart to help you identify your personal stress triggers via the "download" button below.

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.



Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.