Building a trust-wide wellbeing culture
In this guest blog, Ben Levinson OBE shares with us his thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of creating a meaningful wellbeing culture across a Trust
At TDT’s upcoming conference, I will be part of a panel discussing how looking after and developing our staff can create resilient, thriving, expert schools. Here I look at the opportunities and challenges of creating a meaningful wellbeing culture across a Trust and I suggest some key leadership commitments, actions and philosophies that can underpin it.
Wellbeing: what is it good for?
As is often the case in our modern society with disruptive ideas and concepts, ‘wellbeing’ has risen in prominence, been adopted and adapted, and come out the other side as a ‘buzzword’ that engenders as many weary sighs as it does expressions of approval, all in the blink of an eye. So what is wellbeing, and why does it matter?
There are many definitions of ‘wellbeing’. The World Health Organisation(1) defines it as: ‘encompassing quality of life and the ability of people and societies to contribute to the world with a sense of meaning and purpose’. I have always found the most useful framing to be the idea that “wellbeing is the balance between the personal resources we have and the challenges we face”, which I first heard from Paul Farmer, former Chief Executive of MIND when we were part of the Department for Education’s Expert Advisory Group on school staff wellbeing(2).
There is mounting research evidence of the impact wellbeing has on all elements of our children’s education(3) and school staff performance(4) to back up the anecdotal observations and evidence. Increasingly it is accepted that wellbeing is crucial to learning, attendance, behaviour, recruitment, retention, and performance, not to mention mental and physical health.
Building a trust-wide wellbeing culture
Building a trust-wide wellbeing culture takes an unwavering commitment. It must be implemented rigorously and monitored closely. It needs to be built on genuine co-production. It requires humility and strength of character. However, the benefits, as outlined above, can be significant.
Commitment and vision
Creating a trust-wide wellbeing culture takes belief. If any of your senior team thinks this is tokenistic doughnuts in the staff room, a way of mollifying OFSTED or the latest fad, it will fail. Significant time needs to be taken to explore why it is important to develop a wellbeing culture. What problems are you solving? What do you want to gain? Why is a culture of wellbeing the best way to achieve this? If everyone is on board, you can then develop your vision. Clarity is everything. Just throwing all the wellbeing words into a word cloud and seeing what pops out is not going to cut it. What do you mean by wellbeing – in your context, at this time, with your challenges and your people? Why are you doing this? Co-production here is crucial. That’s not the same as co-writing. Get input from a variety of stakeholders about what wellbeing means in your context and what they want it to be: what contributes to wellbeing and what detracts? For workload – so often a key wellbeing driver in education – we came up with the Keep, Tweak, Ditch model(5) and used this to get everyone talking about what made the greatest difference to children and what could be jettisoned with minimal impact. Once you’ve gathered your information, a much smaller group can craft these ideas into a clear vision.
Wellbeing, wellbeing, wellbeing and…wellbeing
Commitment is crucial because this has to be part of every aspect of your organisation. Once you have defined wellbeing, you need fidelity across all functions. How do you deal with parent complaints? What do you do if a child is late? What happens when a member of your team is going through a difficult time with their partner? How do you speak to someone in the corridor? What is the tone of your newsletter/briefing/assembly? If there is a genuine commitment and this is part of the Trust’s ethos, all decisions will flow from here. If not, it will quickly become something you say but not something you do, and everyone will see through that. Start by being explicit about a key element – let’s take dealing with requests for absence from staff. What does this look like through a wellbeing lens? How does that change what you are currently doing? Model it. Train your leadership team. Encode it in policies. And build it into routines through regular opportunities to discuss and decide collaboratively (initially) so it becomes part of how you behave as an organisation, not just a laminated document that’s quickly forgotten.
‘But outcomes are also important’
Investment in wellbeing can often be seen as a trade-off: ‘but children’s academic progress is also important.’ Research shows the links between wellbeing and children’s academic progress(6). Investment in wellbeing is an investment in academic progress. Done well, investment in wellbeing is the best school development approach available. Again, building belief through engaging with people and co-designing your Trust’s approach to wellbeing is crucial.
Ditto with team development: ‘We still have to hold staff accountable’. Wellbeing is as much about providing sufficient purpose (clarity of vision), developing skills and knowledge (effective professional development), and ensuring meaningful challenge (removing lower impact tasks and focusing on developing highly skilled teaching that impacts learning) as it is about being empathetic, supportive and compassionate. Addressing these misconceptions is key to both ensuring everyone is committed to the approach and building an effective wellbeing culture. One of the key areas here is in tackling underperformance. A wellbeing culture does not mean underperformance isn’t tackled. But it does mean that you approach it through a wellbeing lens. Why is that person struggling? What are the barriers? Look beyond how they present – disengaged, demotivated, resistant – and understand what sits behind those behaviours. Then support them to move forward.
Resource vs challenge
To return to Paul Farmer’s definition, wellbeing is the balance between resource and challenge. I find this helpful because it gives a real clarity of approach. Either we are investing in people’s resources or we are looking to change the level of challenge. For resource, think metacognition, developing knowledge and skills, relationships, self-confidence, sleep, exercise, and diet. If the challenge is too high, what can be removed? Cognitive load? Pitch? Tasks with minimal impact? If the challenge is too low, how can it be increased? Responsibility? Greater agency? Where are your different schools currently? Which element of this do they need to focus on? One key area will be your professional development. Do people have sufficient resource to develop their teaching ability? If not, can you build that through finding ways of facilitating relationships and creating a sense of belonging or celebrating their successes to build self-confidence? Then consider the pitch of that professional development. One key area for us is to be hyper-focused. Our Development Plan focuses solely on improving adaptation for teaching and learning this year and professional development is blocked so that people are focusing on one area, returning to this, and given time to reflect, rather than moving from one topic to the next each week. We are extremely focused on ensuring teachers are only working on developing one key area at a time as this is all that can generally be managed alongside the day job.
No more Mr Nice Guy (7)
Leaders wield immense power not only in the workplace but in people’s lives. Our decisions and actions can have far-reaching consequences on people’s mental health, self-perception, relationships and more. As such, I strongly believe there is a moral imperative to build a wellbeing culture. Being kind, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate are all signs of great leadership strength, not weakness. Investing in a culture of wellbeing can build resilient, thriving, successful school communities. Communities where people feel safe, enabling them to learn and innovate. Where they come to work energised and motivated. Where they choose to stay because they genuinely feel part of something. Phil Jackson, legendary coach of the Chicago Bulls, adapts the Tribal Leadership(8) team development stages in his book, ‘Eleven Rings’(9) and talks about the Bulls’ transcendence to Level 5, ‘a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (Bulls, 1995-1998)’. Arguably the greatest sports team of all time, led by Michael Jordan, Jackson knew this was rooted in a clarity of purpose with the resources (skills and knowledge) to match the challenges the team faced. A true culture of wellbeing that delivered its intended outcomes.
Ben Levinson OBE is an Executive Headteacher at The Tapscott Learning Trust(10). He regularly writes and speaks on the subject of wellbeing, was part of the Department for Education’s Expert Advisory Group on school staff wellbeing, and is currently Chair of the Well Schools movement(11).
Hear more from Ben at our National Conference on 30th January 2024 – buy your ticket here
- Alice Cooper, 1973
- Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright, 2009
- Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson, 2015