Improved mental health support for teachers could become a central element of school performance management strategies, as new research underlines the damage caused to education by teachers’ highly stressful working conditions and its impact on teacher wellbeing. HR professionals have predicted that discussions regarding mental wellness and wellbeing are set to become increasingly common during employee performance check-ups across all industries in general, as societal awareness and acceptance of mental health issues increases. Mental health is a significant issue across the workforce, with nearly 20% of workers affected by some form of mental health condition.
Problems regarding employee mental health support are particularly acute in schools, however, with teachers’ high-pressure working environment, heavy workloads and long working hours leading to high levels of stress, anxiety and depression across the profession. A 2017 survey conducted by the Education Support Partnership found that 75% of all education staff in the UK had faced physical or mental health issues because of their work, with 53% having considered leaving as a result. Of those surveyed, nearly a fifth (19%) said that work-related stress had caused them to have panic attacks, while more than half (56%) had experienced insomnia and difficulty sleeping due to school stress. Beyond causing harm to individual workers’ wellbeing, a working environment that is not conducive to good mental health also inevitably has a severe impact on teacher performance and productivity. Some 41% of UK teachers say that work stress has impaired their ability to concentrate, whilst over a quarter (28%) have had to take time off work. Of those who did take time off work to recover from work-related mental health problems, the majority were absent from work for more than a month as a result.
Whilst teachers cite workload and work-life balance as the key professional causes of harm to their mental health, industry leaders have specifically faulted poor school management practices for failing staff. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, says: “The time has come to end the culture of the “anything goes” style of management where any adverse impact on teachers is regarded as collateral damage.” He adds that “too many employers are failing to exercise their duty of care for the health and welfare of their employees and are presiding over mental and physical burnout.” As well as having a positive impact on staff and pupils, improved wellbeing support can improve teacher performance and job satisfaction, in turn reducing staff turnover and absence from work whilst increasing productivity and promoting staff engagement. To bolster mental health support at work and boost teacher job satisfaction, performance, retention, and wellbeing, school leaders will have to reconsider their overall approach to performance management in order to implement more supportive strategies.
Schools advised making teachers’ mental health a priority
Improving teacher mental health support will require making mental health a priority in performance management, refocusing manager-teacher relationships to factor teachers’ mental health into discussions of performance and progress. By reframing teacher-manager relations, schools can help to remove workplace stigma around discussing mental health — a key challenge in tackling professional issues related to staff’s mental wellbeing. Studies show that a large number of workers are still hesitant to discuss mental health problems in the workplace, with many citing fear of judgement, losing out on professional opportunities and fear of discrimination for this reluctance.
To ease these concerns, school leaders must implement policies to introduce open, non-judgemental discussions of mental health into routine professional activities such as teacher-manager meetings. This approach not only builds trust and ties between employees and management but also encourages teachers to be honest and helps management to provide support more quickly, leaving staff feeling better supported and more valued. It is advisable that mental health should not just be addressed as a stand-alone issue, but also considered in broader discussions regarding staff performance and progress. For example, performance appraisals should aim to assess how work stress is impacting an individual’s performance and how this impact could be alleviated — perhaps with a reduction of non-essential job duties or additional support. By taking this approach, schools will be able to both improve and better understand the professional wellbeing of their teachers.
In terms of setting performance goals, rather than focusing on big, overarching annual goals, managers should set smaller, concrete objectives for staff in their appraisals, ensuring that teachers feel their goals are manageable and know where to seek support if they run into difficulty. Aside from offering mental health-specific support, schools can also support teachers’ wellbeing by providing sufficient continuing professional development opportunities for staff — with CPD support shown to increase teacher wellbeing and job satisfaction at all levels.
Results-driven management must be reformed, says research
In addition to altering teacher-manager relationships, a more balanced, mental-health focused approach to performance management will also likely mean moving away from the results-driven mindset currently prevalent in schools. The intensely competitive, high-pressure emphasis on results in schools is evidenced through the use of strategies like linking teacher bonuses to pupil outcomes. This approach not only impacts teachers’ stress levels but has also been shown to not be effective, ultimately only ever achieving the aim of improved academic results at heavy costs to staff and student wellbeing.
According to a recent study conducted by educational and psychological experts, the results-driven mindset in UK schools is leading to overly burdened teacher workloads and poorer quality teaching, as focus on paperwork and data collection detracts from lesson preparation and broader learning. Teachers interviewed for the study reported feeling that not only their own mental health and performance but also students’ education, was suffering due to an excessive emphasis on results. One teacher reported feeling that the results culture meant: “conforming to syllabus and rigour of that syllabus rather than responding to the children,” whilst others reported feeling disillusionment with their role and losing self-esteem due to “impossible” outcome expectations. According to psychologist Gerry Leavey, results-focused “tension is often internalised and impacts on teachers’ identity,” with teachers having to weigh “taking care of themselves and the non-academic needs of pupils against management duties and targets.”
The Ulster University researcher adds: “Too often, this leads to stress and mental health problems.” To remedy this, researcher Dr Barbara Skinner says school leaders must seek to reform their attitudes towards results, advising that the introduction of any “rigidly prescribed organisational and management structures” in schools “should be weighed against their impacts on professional identity and personal well-being.” See here for more on Teacher Wellbeing: The 5 Most Important Things.
Improving Performance Management
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