Staff Wellbeing: Does it Have to be Principles or Profit?

by Martin Boother

Over the past few years, and even more so since COVID, student wellbeing has shot to the top of the priority list for schools. No one could argue this is not an essential part of what we do, but does that make it right to leave the staff behind?  The very people who are tasked with supporting the wellbeing of students are, in many cases, having their own wellbeing shunted aside for convenience because they are considered replaceable or for-profit. I am fortunate to be a leader at a school and a group that truly tries to put staff wellbeing at the forefront of what it does – sadly, too often, this is not the case in too many schools around the world.  

I have been privileged to be in the education sector for over 20 years in a variety of countries and in a multitude of roles. Different schools; in different contexts; in different countries; with different opinions, but there seems to be one constant. Staff, specifically leaders, seem to always fall into one of two camps: students are the most important people in a school, or teachers are the most important people in a school.  While acknowledging that operations staff (cleaners, security, grounds people, etc.) could justifiably be seen as more important. I will go out on a limb and say that, for me, it is the teaching staff without a doubt.

What do I See as Wellbeing?

For me, wellbeing is not a one-size-fits-all description, it looks different for everyone; but in a nutshell, it is that staff feel respected, listened to, and feel that they matter and that leadership cares. It means staff have a work/life balance, the opportunity to socialise with each other, and a safe, secure, and sustainable place to live.  It means that leaders check in on them if they are off sick as many staff are by themselves in a foreign country with no safety net, leaders are aware and understanding of personal issues, and accept that work is not as important as family.  

Profit Over Principles!

I have seen far too many examples (fortunately not where I am working now) of schools that put profits above everything. Teachers with incredibly high-load timetables due to saving on that one extra member of staff would have made all the difference.  Staff are not allowed to leave the school site until late since it would “look bad”, or because they are not trusted to plan at home. Schools that provide a very minimal induction do not give staff new to the country the time or ability to adapt or find answers to those questions we all know they will have. Sick leave policies that involve no trust, and even one day off means a doctor’s note is needed, and hoop after hoop to jump through to get compassionate leave.  A total lack of free or subsidised staff socials or celebrations – I mean come on… are we saying we cannot afford coffee vouchers or a great night out twice a year?  Not to forget to mention my all-time pet hate, schools threatening to deduct from salaries or end-of-contract bonuses if a staff member resigns too late (often in blatant disregard to labour laws in the host country).

The Context of My Current School:

At GEMS Metropole, staff wellbeing starts from the moment someone signs a contract with us.  New members of staff are assigned a buddy who keeps in regular contact with them.  We have regular online induction sessions where new staff can get to know each other, senior leaders, the context of the school and what it is like living in Dubai.  Once staff arrive, we have a two-week induction period that involves time in school (all together and in departments/year groups), trips to IKEA (other furniture shops are welcome to be visited), social events, tourist trips, cultural trips, awareness sessions, and time to just settle in.

We also have a Staff Wellbeing Coordinator (a role that has management points attached) who arranges book clubs, breakfast clubs, social events, end-of-term awards and much more. In addition to this, as leaders, the first thing on our agendas when we meet with middle leaders is staff wellbeing for them and their teams.

Could we do more?  Of course, we could. Any school or leader who says otherwise is not being honest with you. We do have constraints of course, due to our context. We have shareholders, a budget to stick to, and ratios to keep to. We, as all schools are, are at the mercy of staff turnover. Great members of staff who work hard to promote staff wellbeing may leave and staff replacing them may have other priorities or skill sets.

The Benefits of Putting Staff Wellbeing First:

Secondary school teachers are one of the professions that have the highest levels of sick leave due to burnout (García-Carmona et al., 2019).  That in itself is a reason to value staff wellbeing above all.  Staff being sick costs us, either in covering teachers or reputational damage as lessons are covered by non-specialists, or students are left to fill in work left online.  This invariably gets back to the parents and the grumbling begins.  

As school leaders, if we get the staff’s wellbeing right, then we have a chance to improve teacher retention. We want teachers to want to stay at our schools as this creates continuity; if they build meaningful relationships with their students, schools can embed policies, systems, and more. Further to this, we know that parents value this continuity. They want the teachers who are supporting their children, nurturing them, and understanding them to stay.  High teacher turnover (which usually is due to poor staff wellbeing) creates discontent among the parent body, and as a direct result of this, reputational damage!  In addition, the costs involved in hiring new staff far outweigh the theoretical costs of showing you care and thus encouraging staff to stay.  

Finally, word of mouth is a powerful tool.  Teachers, like all people, will talk about their experiences, so if your school has a reputation for treating staff well and really caring about staff wellbeing then this message will spread.  When it comes to recruitment, the world of international teaching is small. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who has worked at the school you are thinking of applying to. Your reputation precedes you, so if yours is one of a school that cares, prospective staff will know.  If it is the opposite, then you can guarantee they will know, making it harder to attract quality informed staff, which ultimately will have a cost as more adverts have to go out, more recruitment fairs attended, and more time invested in recruitment itself.

To Care or Not to Care, That is the Question (or the Reality)…

To sum up my take on this, I would ask two questions. Who is more important, the shareholders or the staff?  Would you not agree it is better to treat others the way you would hope to be treated yourself? As a school leader, I would argue you need to honestly answer these questions before looking into your own school’s staff wellbeing policies.

It is cheaper in the short term to focus on pure profit.  Why spend all that money on the Christmas social for staff?  Why offer awards each week or half term?  Why spend that little bit more to ensure staff accommodation is furnished well?  Why pay the extra to organise the visas for staff members’ families, surely they can pay for that?  Why not try to claw money back from staff who were off sick for one day with a stomach issue and could not get to the doctor for a note?  Why offer a management point for a member of staff to focus on wellbeing?

All of the above will save money in the short-term but will cost in the long-term as staff turnover increases, staff who stay are demotivated and burnt out, results, consequentially start to suffer, and parents start to complain on the ubiquitous unofficial WhatsApp groups and beyond.

Really though, my experience has taught me that the issue is more straightforward. I have worked with some amazing leaders who show they care in words and actions and at my current school we are investing time and money in caring for our staff.  Putting staff first is simply the ethical and correct thing to do.  As a leader, I passionately believe in looking after my staff and ensuring they are as happy and valued as possible.  As I opened with, they are the most important people in the school.

Martin Boother is Assistant Head of GEMS Metropole School, Dubai

To connect with Martin on LinkedIn, click here

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