With wellness becoming so mainstream and direct links connecting employee wellness to productivity, why are so many educators experiencing chronic fatigue, stress-related illnesses, feeling overwhelmed or unwell – or even leaving the profession? Roth argues that we cannot expect teachers to implement health and wellness programs without support: everyone, at all levels in the education sector needs to buy in.
Every time I walk into a classroom, I find myself in absolute awe of the teacher. I’m amazed at how they accomplish their long list of daily tasks, manage 25-30 students, deal with student emotions and behaviours, and complete the math lesson they planned the night before. Educators today are faced with ever-expanding To-Do lists and frequently the expectation that they do more with fewer resources. No longer are teachers “just” responsible for instructing academic content. Educators are now required to teach emotional regulation and social skills, while managing the diverse learning needs in classrooms that exceed the optimal number for student achievement of 18 students per teacher. They also work with students from incredibly diverse backgrounds and those with challenges related to socio-economic status, physical challenges and mental health issues.
I can’t help but wonder: Who’s taking care of educators who do so much for others every day? Whose responsibility is it to care for teachers, nurture healthy schools and classrooms and ensure that everyone in the education sector is supported in their health and wellness endeavours?
Like most rewarding challenges in life, I would say it takes a village.
The case for wellness
Workplace wellness has been part of the daily vernacular in every career sector for quite some time. Extensive research on employee health and wellness clearly demonstrates that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. And honestly, it seems like a fairly simple premise. If we are feeling good and taking care of our own needs, then we’ll be able to provide a quality product or service. With wellness becoming so mainstream and direct links connecting employee wellness to productivity, why are so many educators experiencing chronic fatigue, stress-related illnesses, or lack of job satisfaction? Why are so many feeling overwhelmed or unwell?1 Why are many leaving the profession in search of new careers? It’s easy to find ideas on self-care in this information age, so why aren’t teachers doing a better job of wellness?
We simply cannot expect teachers to implement health and wellness programs without support. When I work with teachers, they easily list what to do in the classroom to meet the needs of their students, but figuring out what they need for their personal well-being is not as simple. Upon asking a teacher what she did for her own self-care routine, she became tearful on the realization that she’d been focused on the needs of others and had completely lost sight of what she needed. Without encouragement and permission to put personal wellness on the agenda, many teachers find themselves in the same situation.
This is why we need a big-picture team approach to teacher wellness. Many of the issues that create stress in the workplace are systemic challenges that educators have very little control over. In order for wellness initiatives to take root and grow, everyone, at all levels in the education sector, needs to buy in.
In business sectors, health and wellness programs have been in place for several years and companies such as Google and Delta Hotels know that investing in these initiatives benefits the bottom line with increased productivity, lower absenteeism, improved employee satisfaction and reduced employee benefit costs. In education, there are unique challenges impacting wellness initiatives. Increasing workloads, funding limitations, insufficient support personnel, population and demographic diversity of school communities, rigid work hours, reduced autonomy, difficulty seeing improvement in one’s teaching abilities and increased pressure to demonstrate improved outcomes are factors leading to burnout.
The most important component for supporting teacher wellness is funding – and not just throwing money into an account labelled “Teacher Wellness” but taking a critical look at class size and composition, support for students with special needs, and ensuring we are implementing best-practice policies at every available opportunity. Best practice policies allow teachers to build a classroom community where students grow, thrive, and learn. Budgets are always tight, but the excuse that there isn’t enough money is hard to justify when extensive research shows that the return on investment can be significant. A 2010 review published by the Harvard Business Review stated that well-run comprehensive wellness programs could offer up to a 6 to 1 return on investment.2 This may seem too good to be true – but even more conservative data illustrates a returned 3.80 dollars in health care savings for every dollar invested.3
Cost reduction is only one of the benefits achieved by implementing wellness initiatives in school divisions. You can measure absenteeism due to stress leaves and sick days, but there are many other factors that are harder to measure. What are the effects of increased stability in the classroom, which would have a positive impact on individual student mental health and learning? Encouraging and supporting mindfulness strategies reduces stress and improves prosocial behaviours, which translates into less time dealing with behaviour management and increased time on instructional learning. In a data-driven world, measuring these outcomes can be challenging, but critical to supporting health initiatives.
Although Occupational Health and Safety measures have historically focused on physical injuries, psychological harm related to the job are included in some provincial and territorial Occupational Health and Safety Acts, which places responsibility on employers to take action to support their employees’ mental health and well-being. Mental health initiatives are in the early stages of development in many divisions, and unfortunately there continue to be individuals at all levels of management who continue to view mental health and wellness programs as “fluff.”
Levels of leadership
Allocating funds and prioritizing employee wellness programs are first steps, but if we truly want wellness initiatives to take hold, involvement at all levels of a school division is critical. A culture of wellness from the top leaders throughout all levels of employees is necessary to promote engagement and commitment. This requires a significant cultural shift, where an organization begins to emphasize employee well-being not just as a standalone program, but in all policies, programs, procedures, and behaviours. I was pleased, for example, to see more focus on the Mental Health Matters campaign and the hiring of a Wellness Consultant by my school division this year, demonstrating a willingness to support their employees’ well-being.
After years of working with many administrative and support teams, I’m often able to tell quite quickly if leaders place emphasis on their own personal wellness and that of their staff. How many principals send out emails to their staff after 6 p.m. at night or on weekends? This one small act sets the expectation that work is always on. Buy-in by the senior leaders is essential. When senior leadership shows that wellness is a priority, they become role models for work-life balance, resulting in more successful wellness programming.4
School administrators, principals and vice principals play a critical role in creating a culture of wellness. They set the tone for the school community and by placing an emphasis on teacher wellness, and they can create opportunities for daily wellness to occur. This can happen by modeling a good work-life balance, setting a wellness goal for the school, encouraging time boundaries for work activities, building wellness strategies into the day-to-day schedules of the school, and collaborating with their staff members to find out what people are needing. A whole-school mindfulness five-minute session each day, walking programs over the lunch hour, and encouragement to have a life outside of work provide options to infuse wellness into the workday.
There is a momentum or trickle-down effect of wellness. When teachers are focused on wellness and supported by funders, employers, administrators and their colleagues, health and wellness spreads to the classroom. Students learn to embrace wellness strategies and to integrate personal wellness earlier in their lives.
Personal responsibility: this is our life
The great Canadian poet and musician Gord Downie wrote “No dress rehearsal, this is our life.” Personal wellness comes from within and we have an individual responsibility to prioritize our own health and well-being. While it’s true that there need to be systemic changes, continuing to point blame at others or the system places us in the role of victim. In reality, you are the CEO of your life. Start by fostering self-awareness of what nourishes you physically and emotionally so you can ensure those activities make it to the top of your To-Do list. Understand Us, a mental health initiative and non-profit organization, created the “Share your Recipe” campaign to encourage individuals to talk openly about their “ingredients” for mental health.5 I like the analogy of creating your own personalized recipe for mental and physical wellness. Think about what might work for you and commit to pursuing those things that bring you nourishment. Consider working with other professionals such as physicians, therapists, and counsellors for additional support. Look to your professional associations and colleagues for ideas. The resources are out there, but the responsibility falls to each of us to prioritize our well-being and get what we need to feel better.
If we want healthy, happy, and productive teachers who are able to focus on and support the learning needs of their students, make positive gains in literacy, improve on-time graduation rates, and create safe schools and innovative classrooms, we need to work together to mitigate the challenges. It’s a process that requires funding, continuous work and commitment by government, school boards, school divisions, school administrators and teachers.
It’s time for that cultural shift to happen. Embracing wellness and focusing on mental health for teachers will benefit everyone. Let’s work together to give our teachers and our students the support they need for a life full of learning and the pursuit of happiness.
Photo: iStock and Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, December 2019
1 Bernie Froese-Germain, Work-Life Balance and the Canadian Teaching Profession (Canadian Teachers Federation: July, 2014).
2 Leonard L. Berry, Ann M. Mirabito, and William B. Baun, “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs,” Harvard Business Review 88, no. 12 (2010): 104-112.
3 Soeren Mattke, H. H. Liu, J. P. Caloyeras, et al., Workplace Wellness Programs Study: Final report (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013).www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR254.html
4 Berry, Mirabito, and Baun, “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs,” 106.
5 “Share your Recipe,” Understandus.ca. https://understandus.ca/uu-initiatives/syr