Who is in charge of wellbeing in your school?

Written by: Frances Robertson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Staff wellbeing is the responsibility of everyone in your school – but how? Frances Robertson offers some ideas and reflections

Recently I was invited into a school by a headteacher who was struggling to, in her words, “be responsible” for everyone's wellbeing. She asked me to lead a workshop with the team about wellbeing.

The first thing I did was play some music, to be precise I played Heather Small's “Proud” which contains the lyrics: “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”

This resulted in many of the team moving without any thought about what they were doing. I was then able to share with them the power of dance in making you feel good – it literally raises your feel good or happy hormones. I also shared how a range of studies have found that dancing is one of those activities that may ward off dementia. So if you feel the need to move, you should definitely do so.

The song was deliberately chosen to remind the team to celebrate all the micro-successes. Every single one. We tend to celebrate the big wins and let the little ones pass us by. Why?

We don't let the small moans pass us by. By celebrating every small win, we embed those good memories into our thinking. So when the complaints come in or something goes wrong, we have enough of the “good stuff” recorded in our thinking that we can cope.

You can celebrate every micro-success by either recording in a journal or with a physical movement. That might be a pumped fist or star-shaped pose. Imagine you are just about to win a race and you are heading over the finish line. What would you do? The physical movement registers in your brain physiologically and produces happy hormones.

I then asked two fundamental questions: What is wellbeing and who is in charge of it? This resulted in much debate as you can imagine. Before you read on, I ask you to stop and think about these two questions yourself. Simply pause and consider…

What does wellbeing mean to you? What does good wellbeing look like for you? Is that the same for everyone in your school? Who is responsible for your wellbeing? Can anybody else have an impact on your wellbeing?

Put simply, “wellbeing” is about how we are doing both now and also how sustainable that is in the years ahead. It is about feeling good and functioning well.

The English Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. In many ways here is the challenge for headteachers – how can you ensure that all your staff are “comfortable, healthy and happy”? In reality I suggest that you cannot.

Wellbeing is about a wide scope of sectors of a person’s life, including their emotional and social state, their physical state, their spiritual state, their financial state and also their digital and environmental state. The individual must take responsibility for much of this.

However, the culture of your school, in which as a headteacher you will have a key part to play, does have an impact. All staff will contribute to the culture too.

For example, is there a culture of positive gossip rather than negative gossip in your school? Do your staff see feedback as an opportunity to grow and develop or as a negative experience? Do your school’s systems and processes encourage this culture?

I suggest that it is everyone’s responsibility as a whole school to feed into that state of being comfortable. In other words everyone in the school is responsible for the wellbeing of themselves and each other. How we view the world impacts on this. How we construe what is happening around us has an impact.

As already mentioned, your staff who view feedback as an opportunity rather than a negative experience will seek feedback rather than reject it. If the culture of your school sees mistakes as a chance to learn rather than an error, then this positive approach will have a positive impact on wellbeing.

Everyone can have a bad day

Even with a positive outlook and a yearning to grow and develop, all of us can have days where our wellbeing is not so good. Being aware of what happens in your body physiologically can support this. When you are having a stressful day the stress hormone – cortisol – rises in your body. Low levels of this are okay however when levels of this hormone rise too high then we tend to react and not respond. So can we have an impact on this hormone ourselves?

Well, in short, we can. We can impact this by increasing the happy hormones that are in our bodies. So what can we do?

Regular-paced breathing increases the serotonin levels in our body. Try breathing in for four, holding for three and breathing out for seven. Do this for three minutes. How do you feel now? You will notice a difference in your body. You will feel calmer. You can do this at any time you feel stress coming over you. Just focus on your paced breathing and nothing else. Breathe.

Another way to alter the hormonal balance in your body is to move. I have already mentioned dancing. This will do it. This increases serotonin levels in your body. Now it may not always be possible to dance! So if you cannot do this there are other ways to move.

Go for a walk even if only for 10 minutes. Remember the very time to relax is when you don't have time for it. In my workshop we worked through lots of examples of how movement makes a difference. We also looked at how posture and the way we stand and sit changes our hormones.

When you have a tricky situation looming, another way to counterbalance the stress hormone is to visualise the situation and the outcome. Visualisation activates the neurology and reduces the stress hormones. The more vivid this is, the better. It may take practice however it is worth it.

Interaction with others lifts dopamine and oxytocin levels in your body which also counter the stress hormones. This is why talking something over with another person can be so powerful. It is why coaching can have such powerful effects.

That thinking partner helps keep the “happy hormones” in place and reminds you to celebrate all the micro-successes all of which counterbalance the raised cortisol levels that can occur when under pressure. Brené Brown says that “we don't have to do it alone; we were never meant to”.

Our brains can control and have an impact on our wellbeing. There are things we can do to ensure that we maintain this sense of being comfortable for as much as possible. Being aware of this in itself aids our wellbeing.

Moving more, being creative and ensuring we relax – diarise it if needs-be – alters the hormones in our body and this will affect how we are feeling. Sleep also has an impact. During sleep our brains are “washed”. The toxins that build are flushed through, and a lack of sleep means this may not happen. Sleep allows our bodies to recuperate.

In summary, simple physical exercises and changing the way you look at a situation can result in changes of thinking and this results in changes to our physiology which then changes our behaviour. This in turn can make a massive difference to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you.

  • Frances Robertson, having recently retired from headship, offers confidential support for school leaders and headteachers to ensure wellbeing and professional development through reflective supervision and coaching as well as offering educational consultancy support. Visit www.headsconnect.co.uk. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-robertson

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