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Leadership, Policy, Well-being

Moving Beyond Self-Care

A moral responsibility for educational organizations

Gail Markin will be delivering the workshop, “Beyond Self-Care: Leading a Systemic Approach to Well-Being for Educators “, during EdCan’s upcoming 2022 Pan-Canadian Summit on K-12 Workplace Wellbeing.

“Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions.”  –Paul Ricoeur (1990/1992, p.172)

What ethical responsibilities do educational organizations have to create the conditions that foster employee well-being? Is the strategy of self-care promotion sufficient or should educational organizations consider what other obligations exist in order to encourage the “good life?” If we are aiming at the good life as Ricoeur (1990/1992) suggests, and if our intention is to create well-being in the education workplace, then reminding people to take care of themselves and focusing on the health practices of individuals is not enough. People exist in relationships and work in complex systems, so addressing these things is also necessary in order to create and support well-being. If the relationships or systems are not well, then focusing on the individual “fixing” themselves becomes both ineffective and frustrating. 

Making the “right” health decisions and doing self-care activities tend to be framed as a competence or character issue of an individual (Wang, Pollock, & Hauseman, 2018), but this idea falls apart when one considers that an employee only has control over one part of the situation. For example, employees can do all of the things they know are good for them – they can eat well, get the requisite hours of sleep each night, exercise, meditate, have great social support, and so on – but if they are in a toxic workplace environment or work with others who don’t care about them, then they will not be well. Many education leaders who are promoting and supporting self-care are trying to do the right thing for their employees, their employers, or both, but are, unintentionally, losing the substance for the shadow and doing more harm than good. 

More and more ministries of education and school districts are recognizing the need to address staff well-being as an important step toward increasing student well-being. They are also acknowledging the importance of staff well-being in relation to students’ learning outcomes. In the province of B.C., the newly published Mental Health in Schools Strategy (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020) recognizes the need for adult well-being for the very first time. “Not only does adult stress impact students directly, it can also lead to increased sick days taken by staff, increased disability claims and challenges with retention and recruitment, all of which cost the school system as a whole” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020, p. 5).

The Mental Health in Schools Strategy document correctly points out that there is also a business case to be made for addressing staff well-being. Education leaders are looking at well-being as a way to save money through lower absenteeism, increased staff retention, and other human resources considerations. Having a safe and caring workplace creates value for the institution, as it increases productivity and makes financial sense from the human resources perspective – but employee well-being has value beyond just what it can provide in a linear and measurable cost/benefit analysis. Organizations have a moral responsibility for the well-being of their employees. There is also intrinsic value that exists in the relationships between people that we cannot reduce to numbers and statistical analysis; this benefit exists in the connection itself and is experienced in the most successful and creative teams (Waterhouse, 2019). 

As individual employees, we exist within organizations that are in relationships within the larger system. The system is not a separate entity that exists outside of the individuals who are part of it. The organization itself is made up of, developed, and shaped by people in relationship. This explanation fits with the idea that “the moral life of organizations is reducible neither to individual morality, nor to institutional structures. Rather it is usually the interplay of individual moral agency on the one hand, and organizational structures on the other that determines outcomes” (Herzog, 2018, p. 2). This interplay doesn’t take away the responsibility that each person has for their own decisions and actions, nor does it waive organizations’ responsibilities to attend to their employees’ well-being. But instead, it acknowledges that those decisions and actions, whether they are individual or organizational, occur within and are impacted and shaped by the individual’s relationships and interactions with the organizational contexts. Organizations need to change the way they work, co-develop well-being strategies and practices with their employees, and wholeheartedly integrate them into their daily lives.

Taking action

It is valuable to look at what an organization is doing to promote health and well-being and whether these strategies and practices are having the intended impact. The use of self-care as a well-being strategy puts the responsibility on the individual to take care of their own health, ignoring the systemic inequities that create an unequal playing field. It also ignores the responsibility of organizational leaders to create and support policies and practices that bring well-being into the culture and structure of their organizations. In the education workplace, the role of the employers in supporting well-being is often seen as simply providing information – via newsletters, blog posts, or “wellness days” – for employees to learn about self-care they can do on their own. Such a view is patronizing, as it places the burden on individuals and neglects organizations’ impact on and responsibility for their employees. Recently, an education colleague spoke about a staff wellness day at their school: “Our administrator was praising the day and publicly people were praising the day too, but privately no one saw the point.” The idea that work-related stress can be relieved with health promotion materials is problematic because it ignores the organizational, social, and systemic patterns that have contributed to the stress in the first place (Bressi & Vaden, 2017). As illustrated from the above example, it also runs the risk of appearing inauthentic or becoming a “Band-Aid” solution that could damage the very relationships that it aims to support. 

The other workplace strategy around self-care practices is to encourage or reinforce better health practices. Some districts are promoting the use of apps that record fitness and other health goals. These apps are often part of the employee assistance program offerings and tend to reward individuals or teams for meeting their goals with virtual awards or gift cards. There are mixed opinions on the effectiveness of these types of behaviour modification programs, but it is generally agreed that how these programs are structured matters. A study by Gneezy et al. (2011) found that this is particularly true for initiatives designed for the public good, as incentive programs can have “adverse effects in social norms, image concerns or trust” (p. 206). The same study also found that using incentives to make lifestyle changes sometimes works in the short term but is usually not sustainable. These are often great tools, but alone they are just not enough. 

So, if we want to increase staff well-being and experience all the benefits this provides, what do we do?

One of the more promising strategies in workplace well-being is the idea of moving to a joint responsibility model of health promotion (Joyce et al., 2016). A white paper put out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Morneau Shepell (2018), a human resources company, promotes this joint responsibility model that includes recommendations like creating a caring culture and supporting the employee-manager relationship. We would like to suggest a three-part model that includes looking after self, supporting and caring about each other, and considering the policies and practices in the system that either promote or get in the way of well-being. 

Having a well-being plan that has all three components acknowledges the shared responsibility and makes this something people at all levels of the organization are working on together. For example, it is still the individual’s responsibility to take care of their own health, so information or programs that encourage self-care are great – but only if that is just one part of a more comprehensive well-being support plan. The plan should also include ways to support each other like team building, opportunities to contribute, plans to address conflict, and anything that supports connection, collaboration, and belonging on teams. The third part is looking at policies and practices through the lens of equity and well-being. Which of your practices/policies are supporting well-being and which are getting in the way of it? There are many examples and opportunities to look at established practices with a new well-being lens, such as: whose voices are included in decision making processes? Do our onboard practices create equity and belonging? How do people advance in our district? Do we provide opportunities for ideas and feedback to be heard and shared? Do we need an email policy to support boundaries around work time? The answers to these and so many more questions will vary, but they are definitely worth asking and reflecting on together. 

The education system’s ethical responsibility is to work together on creating well-being in the K–12 workplace; it is then that Paul Ricoeur’s (1990/1992) ethical aim for “the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172) can be truly be achieved.

Learn more about the pan-canadian summit, an exclusive professional learning experience for district teams of staff wellbeing champions seeking concrete ways to embed and sustain a happier and healthier workplace culture.



Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. R. (2017). Reconsidering self-care. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 33–38.

British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2020). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia.

Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), 191–209.

Herzog, L. (2018). Reclaiming the system: Moral responsibility, divided labour, and the role of organizations in society. Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198830405.001.0001

Joyce, S., Modini, M., et al. (2016). Workplace interventions for common mental disorders: A systematic meta-review. Psychological Medicine, 46(4), 683–697. doi:10.1017/S0033291715002408

Mental Health Commission of Canada & Morneau Shepell (2018). Understanding mental health, mental illness, and their impacts in the workplace. Health Canada.

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (Kathleen Blamey, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1990.)

Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2018). Ontario principals’ and vice-principals’ well-being and coping strategies in the context of work intensification. In S. Cherkowski & K. Walker (Eds.), Perspectives on flourishing in schools (pp. 287–303). Lexington Books.

Waterhouse, A. (2019). Positive relationships in school: Supporting emotional health and well-being. Routledge.

Meet the Expert(s)

Gail Markin bio

Gail Markin

Social Emotional Learning District Teacher, Langley School District

Gail Markin is a Counsellor and Teacher who supports Social Emotional Learning in the Langley School District (Langley, B.C.). She is passionate about well-being for all.

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Dr. Wei Fang

Dr. Fei Wang

Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia

Dr. Fei Wang is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education, the University of British Columbia (UBC). Fei Wang, Ph. D., est professeur agrégé à la Faculté d’éducation de l’Université de la Colombie-Britannique (UBC).

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