Leadership, Policy, Well-being

Systemic Approaches to Workplace Wellbeing

Concepts and approaches for Canadian provinces and school districts

Dr. Gabor Maté (2022) argues that within the medical world, treating individual health symptoms, without considering wider systems within which individuals exist, ignores multiple factors that contribute to sickness:  

“What if we saw illness as an imbalance in the entire organization, not just as a manifestation of molecules, cells or organs invaded or denatured by pathology. What if we applied the findings of western research and medical science in a systems framework, seeking all the connections that contribute to illness and health?” 

Historically, addressing individual symptoms has been the dominant approach in western medicine. The same focus on individuals rather than systems has also pervaded approaches to workplace wellbeing in Canadian schools. A plethora of incentives, from gym membership to yoga classes, suggests that K–12 staff wellbeing can be addressed by encouraging individuals to access such programs to counter stresses in work and life. 

This article rejects a dominant focus on individual remedies and argues for systemic approaches to address workplace wellbeing. While individual responsibility has its place, a primary focus on it is misplaced. Teachers, principals, or school bus drivers should bear some responsibility for their own wellbeing, and for positively contributing to their professional workplace, but should not bear responsibility for fixing school systems that may be making them sick. 

So how to create systemic approaches to wellbeing? 

1. Provincial governments can play a greater role. 

To its credit, the British Columbia government, through its Ministry of Education’s Mental Health in Schools Strategy (2020) has encouraged a focus on workplace wellbeing: 

“Research confirms stress experienced by school administrators can negatively impact school staff. Teacher stress has been directly linked to increased student stress levels, spilling over from the teacher to the student and impacting social adjustment and student performance.”  

Funds from the Ministry of Education to address mental health can be utilized for a focus on adults in K-12 school systems.  

Addressing two issues would greatly improve the role of provincial governments (including B.C.) in supporting systemic workplace wellbeing:

  • Collating and analyzing sick leave and short/long-term disability costs linked to mental health.
    Currently in B.C., data for teacher and support staff sick leave usage is held by districts, and short/long term disability data are held by teacher and support staff unions, while principals maintain their own usage data. In Alberta, the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan provides long-term disability support while employers provide short-term disability and sick leave. Similar divisions exist in other provinces. Provincial governments could develop capacity to ascertain sick leave and disability prevalence, trends, and differences (in terms of age, gender, and roles), data that could provide a basis for more systemic action. 
  • Addressing the low pay and limited hours of some support staff, with a primary focus on educational assistants (EAs).
    Low pay and limited hours have led to many EAs working multiple jobs to make ends meet. A recent Globe and Mail article (Capobianco, 2023) reported that Nova Scotia’s lowest-paid EAs earned just $16 an hour, and that, according to the President of CUPE local 5047, “many EAs and support staff work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Some have even left the field for fast food and retail because of the low wages and the tough nature of the work.”We have found the same in B.C. EAs experience difficult work with challenging students, with low pay and limited hours. The results? Increased WorkSafe BC claims,1 more sick leave accessed than other staff, and a high turnover of EAs. EA illness and turnover have ripple effects2 on other EAs, teachers, and principals, increasing their workloads and reducing wellbeing. Addressing this system-wide problem by creating full-time, better-paid jobs would impact workplace wellbeing for all staff. 
2. Rethink school district management/union roles and relationships.

Teacher and other unions tend to be reactive organizations. But addressing workplace wellbeing requires stakeholders to collaboratively consider data and act together to find solutions. When working with districts as EdCan Advisors,3 we have utilized the Guarding Minds at Work survey,4 conducted interviews with a range of staff, and accessed demographic, sick leave, and other data. These combined data sources, as well as reports we generate, can be used in management-union collaborations to jointly develop action plans.  

A new form of proactive, collaborative social entrepreneurship might be considered, where ideas to improve wellbeing emerge from all stakeholders, and where consensus should be developed on proposed solutions. Both union and management can build trust by co-creating solutions and by working together to support wellbeing.  

3. Rethink the concept of leadership. 

 Being a compassionate leader is a fine idea, but being a collaborative one is better. Hierarchical school systems are reflected in job titles like Superintendent, CEO, and Executive Team. Many progressive leaders within these roles utilize collaborative approaches and encourage innovation within their organizations. But others do not, and autocratic leadership, especially in school principals, has been found in our work to have negative impacts on teacher and support staff wellbeing, while more collaborative and less autocratic principals have improved wellbeing in their schools.  

Leaders can support systemic approaches by: 

  • setting policies to guide approaches 
  • initiating systemic change when there is consensus that such changes are needed 
  • creating staffing and budgets to implement action 
  • enabling innovation at schools and worksites 
  • extending collaborative approaches with unions  
4. Rethink the role of the individual while addressing the core systemic issues that impact workplace wellbeing. 

Everyone who works as an employee in a K–12 Canadian school district is part of a system. Yet how often does one hear “the system” discussed as though those working in it are not part of it? If I work in a system, I need to take some responsibility to make it better. But if my workload is excessive, my stress is high, and some of my professional connections and relationships are problematic, giving me one more job is not going to help. 

So, what to do? The answer is simple – reduce workload and stress. But how to do it is not. We as EdCan Advisors have found two useful starting points: 

  • Separate contractual and non-contractual issues.
    Not all workload issues are contractual, and while ideally, workload might be addressed in contracts, the reality is that much can be done to improve wellbeing outside of contract negotiations. As an example, addressing negative professional relationships can impact wellbeing (Naylor, 2020). 
  • Find and address the “low-hanging fruit”: steps that can be initiated quickly and with little controversy
    These might include improving meeting processes, reducing email use, and limiting after-hours and weekend messaging, or encouraging senior district staff to visit schools and worksites to build connections and relationships while offering positive feedback and encouragement when appropriate.  

As these progress, longer-term systemic approaches can be the focus of dialogue and planning, perhaps to address issues of racism or discrimination, or shifting school and district culture into more positive spaces. 

5. Address racism and discrimination toward Indigenous and racialized staff and incorporate more Indigenous approaches into wellbeing initiatives. 

One way to address racism in schools is to hire greater numbers of Indigenous and racialized teachers and other staff. A Rideau Foundation effort to boost Indigenous teachers was reported by McKenna (2023), and stated that in Winnipeg, 16.9 percent of students identified as Indigenous but only 8.6 percent of teachers were Indigenous. This lower ratio of Indigenous staff compared to districts’ Indigenous student populations is repeated in many Canadian school districts. 

Systemic approaches to combatting racism and discrimination require more Indigenous teachers and racialized staff in schools. This is a more complex issue than recruitment, as some Indigenous people have stated they are reluctant to participate in what they still consider a predominantly colonial system. Indigenous staff report hearing racist and discriminatory comments from students, staff, or parents, comments which impact their wellbeing. Indigenous support staff have told me of bullying and harassment at work linked, in their view, to being Indigenous, female, and of low status in school districts. 

At the same time, many non-Indigenous teachers are making significant efforts toward respectful access to both Indigenous knowledge and people. Others are apprehensive about cultural appropriation or fear to offend. 

Just as decolonization is a work-in-progress, so will addressing wellbeing with anti-racism efforts take time and careful dialogue before significant changes are seen. McKenna also offers some thoughts on the complexity of the issue, identifying historical, cultural and current contextual issues, including “ongoing trauma connected to education that stems from residential schools, as well as colonial curriculums and a general lack of cultural safety in public education.” 

While a significant dialogue with Indigenous and racialized people is needed, steps can be made while the bigger picture is explored. In one B.C. school district, Indigenous staff have stated that they do not trust either management or union processes to deal with racism, discrimination, or harassment. They prefer more restorative processes to address racist attitudes and actions. Evidence from districts that have utilized restorative approaches suggests such processes improve wellbeing for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff. 

A similar focus to that on Indigenous and racialized staff might be placed on LGBTQ2+ staff in schools, perhaps with a focus on wellbeing for LGBTQ2+ staff in rural areas, where U.K. research (Lee, 2019) has outlined high levels of depression and anxiety among LGBTQ2+ teachers.  

6. Address workplace wellbeing as a gendered issue. 

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports: “More than 75% of suicides involve men, but women attempt suicide 3 to 4 times more often than men” (CAMH, 2023).   

The Canadian Women’s Foundation (Senior & Peoples, 2021) states: 

“Women experience depression and anxiety twice as often as men. Women in heterosexual pairings have long taken the position of ‘designated worrier.’ They tend to bear the brunt of the anxiety about family health and wellbeing. Of course, the data shows how worry work comes at the expense of a mother’s own health and wellbeing.”  

Women comprise around 75 percent of many school district workforces. Yet there is a surprising lack of focus on women’s wellbeing and mental health in many school systems. Systemic change in a workforce largely populated by women requires a focus on women. Work-life balance can be difficult for women who often still have the primary care responsibilities within families, and even more so for those in the “sandwich generation” who are supporting both children and aging parents.  

Teacher demographics in many school districts currently show more younger teachers, as retirements surge. New patterns are emerging with this changing demographic. One I have heard recently in B.C. school districts is that many younger teachers arrive shortly before the morning bell and are gone shortly after schools close in the afternoon, a pattern differing from some more experienced and older teachers, who often chat and collaborate after students leave. Teachers with young families have many demands at home that may limit the “after-hours” time they can spend at school. But younger staff in K–12 schools may also be protecting their own work-life balance by putting limits and boundaries on their work.  

How to address the wellbeing of women staff in schools? 

Look at the data. Are women taking leaves, accessing EFAP or short/long term rehabilitation programs proportionately more than males, and if so, in which roles? But if supporting collaborative approaches with systemic support resonates with districts, it is also crucial to start conversations with women staff at every status level about their wellbeing.  


PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTs should be more active in supporting systemic approaches to wellbeing. Adopting some or all of the six factors explored in this article to a school district’s context might create strong foundations. Initiating short-term action would build momentum and ease districts into addressing tougher issues over the longer term. Systemic action is possible with the right leadership, staffing, and funding, a focus on data, and effective collaboration, facilitation, and implementation to build workplace wellbeing.  

It’s not easy and there’s no exact recipe, but systemic improvements can be made. Let’s do what we can and share what we learn. 




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

Capobianco, A. (2023, May 24). Halifax education workers’ strike continues. Globe and Mail.

Lee, C. (2019). How do lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers experience UK rural school communities? Social Sciences,8(9), 249.

 Maté, G., with Maté, D. (2022). The myth of normal: Trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. Knopf Canada. 

McKenna, C. (2023, March 28). Finding the Knowledge Keepers: The Indigenous teacher shortage. The Walrus.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2023). Mental illness and addiction: Facts and statistics. 

Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships.

Senior, P., & Peoples, A. (2021, June 7). The abysmal state of mothers’ mental health. (2021, June 7). Canadian Women’s Foundation. 

Wang, F. (2022, October). Psychological safety of school administrators: Invisible barriers to speaking out. University of British Columbia.

Photo: iStock
First published in Education CanadaSeptember 2023

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Charlie Naylor


Charlie Naylor is the Lead Advisor and B.C. Strategic Consultant in the EdCan Well at Work Advisors’ Team. He was formerly a Senior Researcher with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and is an Affiliated Scholar with Simon Fraser University.

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