Staff wellbeing: Which talking therapy is best for you?

Written by: Emily Kenneally | Published:
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As a school leader, do you talk about the pressures you face? Talking helps wellbeing and prevents burn-out. Emily Kenneally considers how you can make time to talk and outlines different types of talking therapy and their uses


If you are a school leader reading this, you have probably spoken to quite a few people already today – a colleague with a question about the latest Covid changes, a pupil with challenges at home, a heated parent with a concern, or a quick call with your chair of governors. And all before midday.

Conversations keep things running. They can establish connections, but they can also be fraught. They can be energising and inspiring, but also draining.


Hitting pause

But ask yourself this: Do you ever pause to ask yourself how you’re feeling? We know from our Teacher Wellbeing Index (Education Support, 2021) that school leaders are most at risk of acute stress, insomnia and exhaustion. We also know that you are the most likely to have your own coping strategies in place, and these are more likely to exist outside of your school.

Whatever your experience, taking time to make space to talk about how you are doing might help you to stay well in the long run. It might help you to build the resilience to meet the demands of your role and have enough energy to meet the range of expectations you are juggling.


What’s the evidence?

Studies show that talking about your experiences and sharing emotions with a sympathetic other person can be a healing process. It can reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and soothe both mental distress and physical ailments (Pennebaker et al, 1988).

Talking about your experiences (as opposed to just thinking them over alone) helps give them shape. This may allow you to turn abstract feelings into something more tangible, which you can better understand.

Once you understand the structure and meaning of your experiences you can gain a sense control and better manage your emotions (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). For school leaders this could mean building confidence and emotional resilience to further support students and colleagues.

Talking to someone can also help you to label your emotions, which may allow you to understand them and let them go (Esterling et al, 1999; Swinkels & Giuliano, 1995).

There is plenty of evidence that points to the long-lasting effects of talking therapies, and studies indicate that the expression of emotion can lead to positive outcomes such as better mental and physical health. Long-term, talking therapies can even help “rewire” your brain to deal more effectively with future challenges in the classroom or at home. (Lyubomirsky et al, 2006; Pennebaker & Beall, 1986).


Why talk?

Coming back to our Teacher Wellbeing Index, we know that 84% of senior leaders are stressed and 84% are also experiencing symptoms of poor mental health due to their work.

And it is not just Covid. It is clear that school leaders, teachers, and education staff have been under pressure since way before the pandemic. Covid-19 has compounded these challenges.

School leaders in particular, dealing with the added responsibilities and pressures of this challenging period, are most at risk of burn-out.

Processing feelings effectively (and healthily) can be a great way to balance mental wellbeing and relieve some of the pressure that can lead to burn-out in the long run. But talking about our feelings isn’t always easy.


Some things to remember

  • Being open about attending to your feelings sets a great example to everyone around you. This might encourage leaders to talk through their own experiences and create a more supportive environment where discussing feelings is completely normal.
  • Ignoring or bottling up your own feelings is exhausting. It may also lead to other kinds of coping behaviours, like comfort eating, drinking too much or being irritable at home or work. Facing our feelings may help us to carry things more lightly, and lead to improved resilience in our daily lives.
  • Feelings are not necessarily “good” or “bad”. They carry messages that help us understand our lives and experiences. By spending time examining them, we might find new perspectives or ways of approaching challenging situations.
  • When we open up it can release “feel-good” brain chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin. Put simply, talking (and being listened to) can make you feel better, but it can also help us feel more connected to people and help improve relationships.


Types of talking therapies

There is no one approach or talking therapy that works for everyone and you may need to spend some time discovering what works best for you. Below is a brief overview and the NHS also has a great guide to all types of talking therapies (see further information).

Short-term counselling: If you are dealing with a specific issue, short-term counselling might work for you. You can agree on an issue to address and a set number of sessions with a counsellor. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has a directory which you might consult in order to find a counsellor to work with.

Psychotherapy: For on-going issues, or just creating a regular, on-going space to process your experiences, you might consider longer term psychotherapy. There are many different types of psychotherapists, who are trained using different theoretical frameworks.

Many therapists, however, say that their theoretical approaches are less important than simply building a trusted relationship with their clients. Focusing on whether you feel you can work with an individual therapist might be a good place to start if you don’t prefer a particular style of therapy. Again, the BACP directory offers guidance on finding the right therapist for your needs.

Phone support: Since Covid-19, many therapy services are being offered over the phone or online. Education Support has dedicated support for school leaders, which offers six free one-to-one sessions over the telephone with an accredited counsellor. We also have a helpline available to all those working in education (see further information).

Peer support groups: Education Support also provides an online peer support group dedicated to helping school leaders where you can take part in six 90-minute sessions in a group of six or seven. The sessions are run by a professional facilitator who is a trained coach with experience of working within the education sector.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: CBT aims to change behaviours by examining thought patterns. You will usually have a limited number of sessions and work towards a clear goal to learn new ways of thinking and doing. CBT is available through your GP and commonly prescribed by GPs for people experiencing anxiety and depression. You may have to wait for an initial appointment if you go via the NHS but (CBT) can also be accessed privately. The charity Mind has a really useful webpage dedicated to CBT (see further information).


Give yourself time

Talking more openly to others about how you are feeling may feel uncomfortable at first – start by taking small steps until your confidence grows and try different approaches until you find what works best for you. At first it might be useful to write down your feelings before a conversation or you could try booking in specific time. And remember – it is not just you. It is very likely that your colleagues have experienced or will experience the same emotions and challenges. You are not alone, and we are here to help.

  • Emily Kenneally is the content and media manager at Education Support, a UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce. For previous articles from Education Support as well as other advice relating to staff wellbeing, go to https://bit.ly/htu-edsupport


Further information & resources

References

  • Esterling, L’Abate, Murray, & Pennebaker: Empirical foundations for writing in prevention and psychotherapy: Mental and physical health outcomes, Clinical Psychology Review, 1999.
  • Lyubomirsky, Sousa & Dickerhoof: The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (90,4), 2006: https://bit.ly/3vgn0kB
  • Pennebaker & Beall: Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease, Journal of Abnormal Psychology (95,3), 1986.
  • Pennebaker & Graybeal: Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, personality, and social integration, Current Directions in Psychological Science (10), 2001.
  • Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser: Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (56,2), 1988.
  • Swinkels & Giuliano: The measurement and conceptualization of mood awareness: Monitoring and labelling one's mood states, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (21), 1995.


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