Many workplace well-being initiatives in Canadian school districts originally developed approaches focusing on the individual, such as mindfulness, improving sleep patterns, doing more exercise, and improving diets. This approach was critiqued as limited by those who felt such a focus ignored systemic factors, like class size and workload, that can impact teacher and staff well-being. As Chelsea Prax, programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an Education Week article:
“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem”
The notion of systemic change in some literature states or implies system transformation: radical overhauls of K–12 school systems to replace allegedly creaking systems with brand-new models in a brave new world. Well, brave new worlds come and go. Concepts and trends emerge, peak, and falter, yet education systems somehow continue, adapting and evolving. Or not, depending on your perspective.
In the world of workplace well-being, the notion of systems change is gaining greater credibility as an approach to improving staff well-being. Corporate Canada recognizes that organizations need to change and adapt to promote employees’ mental health, yet it can be argued that provincial governments and school districts have been slow to focus on their systems rather than on individuals when addressing workplace well-being in Canadian schools. So how to consider systems change concepts that provide direction for systemic implementation to improve workplace well-being?
Let’s consider what we mean by systemic implementation by looking at three ways to change systems:
Structural changes within a school district
This might include allocations for staff with responsibilities for staff well-being within or beyond the domain of district HR departments. It might mean focusing on workplace well-being in strategic plans and budgets, so that well-being is central to planning and funding, moving it away from the periphery to the core business of school districts. A focus on all staff – teachers, administrators, support and exempt staff – also suggests a major structural change in terms of focus.
- Several B.C. and Alberta school districts have struck Wellness Committees with a mandate to consider workplace well-being approaches within a district. Such committees enable stakeholders’ consultation, share information across schools, and sponsor initiatives.
- Other districts have written language focused on well-being into their strategic plan, provided staffing with time allocations for addressing staff well-being, and included well-being in budgeting.
- The College of Alberta School Superintendents has added the construct of well-being into the Superintendent and School Education Leader Practice Profiles (CASS, 2021), which align with the Superintendent Leadership Quality Standard (SLQS) (Alberta Education, 2018). This is in addition to the seven competencies in the SLQS and clearly demonstrates an understanding of the importance of the leadership commitment required to sustain structural changes.
Policy shifts (written policies or guidelines)
Changing policies, administrative procedures, and guidelines to address well-being can send both a powerful signal and impact educators’ work and the expectations placed on them. Such policies might be at a provincial or district level, establishing priorities, directions, and values.
- At the provincial level, a 2019 B.C. Ministry of Education Mental Health Strategy for K–12 stressed “a system-wide approach to mental health promotion” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, n.d., p. 6). It included a focus on staff well-being in mental health guidelines, and funding for districts’ use in staff-focused well-being approaches.
- At the district level, one B.C. school district discovered from focus group data that many staff considered the volume and timing of communications to be problematic, adding to workload and negatively impacting well-being. As a result, the district is working, in consultation with staff, to create a policy or guidelines to reduce quantities of email and to limit after-hour and weekend use of the district email system.
- In Alberta, a number of school authorities (divisions) have clearly articulated their commitment to workplace well-being through policy, administrative procedure, and/or education plans, depending on their governance model and administrative practices. In one example, a school authority has directly aligned an administrative procedure with the College of Alberta School Superintendents’ Workplace Wellness Guide to Planning and Implementation (College of Alberta School Superintendents, 2020). As well, a number of Alberta school authorities feature some variation of a 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. moratorium on emails and/or use of an email “delay send” feature. While this specific practice may not be written in policy, it might be evidenced in an administrative procedure. Other school authorities prefer to specify certain practices in their education plans, as these documents are referenced more regularly.
School districts and unions as enablers of systemic action
This concept is emerging as one possible strategy for creating systemic change. As enablers, school districts fund, support, and disseminate collaborative and facilitated approaches to workplace well-being, which are intended to permeate a system over time rather than mandate one-off approaches that may or may not be implemented or sustained. In some provinces, union grants can also be applied to support collaborative inquiry into workplace well-being, which potentially positions unions as enablers of systemic action. With some co-ordination, district and union actions could combine to systemically address workplace well-being issues.
Enabling systemic action may be considered “slow” systemic change, requiring staff buy-in and participation, but it may be more sustainable than policy mandates over the long term.
- In one Alberta school authority, conversations with administrators related to strategies and supports to establish boundaries and manage workload have begun. Data collected from one benefit provider, the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan, including details such as health issues and demographics that contribute to the stress of staff and families, is informing new workplace wellness practices.
- After all employee groups in one B.C. school district identified poor professional relationships as a key barrier to workplace well-being, a Learning Group (Naylor, 2021) with teachers and education assistants from most of the district’s schools acquired and extended dialogue and communication skills and strategies and brought them back to their schools. They have since reported that this approach has improved both relationships and well-being. The school district funded the Learning Group by providing some release time and paying facilitation costs.
- In the same B.C. district, an elementary school staff explored its actual and potential approaches to workplace well-being over one school year, with funding provided equally by the school district and the provincial union (the B.C. Teachers’ Federation). Thus, both the district and the union became enablers of collaborative inquiry and action.
Some of these approaches have been documented and are accessible on EdCan’s Well at Work website
Systemic action is possible and can impact workplace well-being
We suggest that systemic action is possible through these three channels: structural change, policy initiatives, and school districts/unions acting as enablers of actions that can become systemic.
By combining these three approaches, school districts can include but move beyond a focus on the individual to create a sense of shared responsibility through collaborative actions and systemic change. The combination of approaches might also help to bridge the gap between unions and governments/districts if more ways can be found to introduce systemic change initiatives that address workload issues.
As we expand our scope and focus, we hope to share what we learn, and to learn ourselves from multiple jurisdictions about approaches to improving workplace well-being. Join us!
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
The EdCan Well at Work Advisors Program
A growing number of school districts in several provinces are participating in a new EdCan Well at Work project (https://k12wellatwork.ca/advisors). This provides advisors to school districts wanting to further their workplace well-being efforts with the support of external expertise, acting as advisors and “critical friends.” We have developed a concept that includes individual approaches to well-being but goes beyond to propose and attempt new collaborative and systemic approaches to improve well-being for all staff in Canada’s K–12 schools.
Alberta Education. (2018). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Government of Alberta. www.alberta.ca/professional-practice-standards.aspx#jumplinks-3
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/erase/documents/mental-health-wellness/mhis-strategy.pdf
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2020). Workplace wellness. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/wellness/
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2021). Practice profiles. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/practice-profile
Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nSs5ZGmqQkYWCxqio42JehlV473kqm_l/view
Will, M. (2021, Sept. 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently. Education Week. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09