In September 2019, I attended the RCSLT conference for the first time. The focus for the conference was on improving quality in Speech and Language Therapy and the two days were full of excellent clinical sessions and workshops. For me though, the session that I was most looking forward to attending was ‘Building resilience: Supporting wellbeing for better outcomes’, delivered by Pauline Beirne (National Lead AHP for Children and Young People, Scottish Government). I was really pleased to see a workshop focused on wellbeing included in the RCSLT programme. The demanding work culture within the NHS and in education is well documented, with stress and risk of burnout widespread. There is no way that we can work towards developing the quality of the services that we provide for children, if we are not taking care of our own wellbeing and ensuring we have the resilience skills to navigate work life.
Resilience is described as the ‘rubber ball’ factor; the ability to ‘bounce back’ or cope with problems, challenges and setbacks that you experience, by learning from the situation and moving forward stronger. Resilience is fundamental to how we work and practice, to enable us to manage difficult and stressful challenges on a daily basis. Although a person could be described as being more or less resilient than others, resilience is not just a personality trait; resilience is impacted by a multitude of factors. This means that our resilience can fluctuate over time depending on our life stage and the contexts that we are living and working in.
Although the resilience workshop focused on the SaLT profession, the information is easily applicable to teaching staff. Last year, the DfE took the unprecedented step of publishing a teacher recruitment and retention strategy, outlining their plans to tackle the current crisis. Over 20% of new teachers leave the profession within their first 2 years of teaching and 33% leave within their first 5 years (DfE 2018), which is of concern as the demand for teachers is expected to rise considerably over the next decade. Nearly ¾ of teachers and 84% of school leaders have described themselves as ‘stressed’ and almost half believe that their workplace is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing (Education Support).
Coincidentally (or not) the main reasons cited for teachers leaving are the same factors that have been found to reduce our resilience: unmanageable workloads, unsupportive leadership and process driven (rather than person driven) practices.
There is an expectation, put on ourselves and by others, that we should be able to meet the demands of our work and just deal with this stress. If we can’t do this (which many of us have frequently felt) we can feel that this is a reflection on us, that we aren’t resilient enough or good enough. In reality, our resilience is weakened when we face chronic adversity and too much stress, meaning that our resources and defences aren’t able to cope. For many teaching staff, their role has been characterised by unmanageable workloads, funding cuts and a data-driven culture, so it is no wonder that there is a retention and recruitment crisis.
The new Ofsted Framework came into play from September 2019 with an emphasis on reducing teacher workload. For example, it states that inspectors will not look at internal assessment data and that they will view schools that have burdensome data practices unfavourably. The recruitment and retention strategy emphasises the need for better support for teachers through continued professional development and ensuring flexible working opportunities are available at all stages of their career. It currently seems as though Ofsted is sticking to their word, but only time will tell with this and there have been positive and negative views of recent inspections. It is difficult however, for many to see how these changes can be made when the wider climate that schools are operating within means that funds are decreasing while numbers of pupils are increasing.
It is important that we take steps to look after our own wellbeing and build our resilience, so that we are better able to deal with pressures and can recognise the factors that are diminishing our resilience. The greater the range of resilience strategies we have, the better we will be able to respond to challenges.
These are the factors that can help us to build our resilience in the workplace:
Support network – Individuals that have personal support systems, including friends and family, trustworthy relationships with colleagues and line managers are more likely to be able to cope with stress at work. Sometimes it can be hard to recognise when we need to ask for support, and we feel that this will add to other people’s stress levels. It is important to be able to call on others for help when we need it, and this can make situations more manageable.
Supportive leadership – Leadership has the power to inspire or demoralise and the school’s ethos and culture has a significant impact on the wellbeing of staff. In line with the new Ofsted Framework, targets and data collection should be realistic and focused on raising outcomes for children. There should be a safe space to challenge systems and processes that are making unrealistic or unreasonable demands on staff. School leadership should model good working practices, including an appropriate work-life balance and encourage staff to be open about their health and wellbeing.
Awareness of thoughts and emotions – It is important that we are able to notice both how we are feeling and the thoughts that are inside our heads. When we experience a strong emotion, for example when we are stressed, we can react immediately to the situation before having time to think things through rationally. We can then fall into thinking traps which are usually statements about ourselves or the situation that are unhelpful and/or untrue e.g. ‘I just can’t do this’, ‘I’ve never been able to do things like that’, ‘I’m a rubbish teacher’. This can hinder our ability to react effectively, as we respond to the thoughts as if they are facts. Mindfulness can help to increase awareness of these thoughts and the impact they have on our emotions and responses.
Fitness – Both mental and physical fitness support us to build resilience and cope with challenges more successfully. It’s important that we look after our physical health; getting enough sleep, eating healthily and regularly exercising. It’s also important that we allow ourselves time to have regular breaks from work. Our mental focus and energy cycles are typically 90-120 minutes long, so even just a few minutes rest a few times a day can preserve energy and prevent burnout in the long term.
Feeling that you can make a positive difference – Being happy in a job is not just about the workload, it is about feeling in control of your work and feeling valued. This includes the opportunity for continued professional development and not having to complete unnecessary tasks that do not benefit staff or pupils. One activity that I took away from the workshop is to try and think of three good things that I was involved in yesterday, and my personal contribution.
Building resilience is something that we can all work to achieve and it is important to be aware of factors at home and work that are supporting or reducing your levels of resilience. These are not always things that we can change ourselves, but there are many that we can, and these could make a big difference in supporting our ability to manage the challenges of work.
These websites are useful for further information, support and advice about managing mental health and wellbeing: