'How are you today?' - is this the most important question you can ask a colleague?

By Mary Howell posted 10-01-2024 10:11

When my son was at nursery we were always greeted by their friendly team with the question ‘How are you today?’. They always asked both of us - and most importantly the answers we gave were listened to. We also had the chance to ask how others were, so we got to know the team and what was important to them, building relationships that supported everyone.
These interactions might seem like simple pleasantries, possibly trivial, or even a luxury when we are all so hard pressed for time. But to me as a busy working mum, with a full-time job and a leadership role, they were a lifeline. That lovely nursery set the tone for all the other interactions of the day. It made us feel welcomed, cared for and valued.
I’m telling this story because it’s been coming back to me when thinking about teacher wellbeing. To me it encapsulates two vital elements of wellbeing – that combination of individual action and how leadership and management build a culture that sets the tone and nature of interactions between people. This makes so much difference to how we feel about ourselves and our workplace.
What is wellbeing?
defines wellbeing as follows:
‘Wellbeing(n): A state of complete physical and mental health that is characterised by high-quality social relationships.’
That’s an ambitious aim for most of us, personally I feel a long way off the complete bit, but definitely something we should be aiming for both as individuals and within our institutions.
Sadly, the results of a recent survey suggest that social relationships in schools are far from healthy for staff at all levels - in both primary and secondary settings. When asked about school cultures and interpersonal relationships, teachers responded with 15% mentioning the word bullying, 20% mentioning favouritism and cliques and an alarming 59% saying that those cliques were affecting their wellbeing.
Education Support’s annual report, based on responses from over 3000 education professionals, saw 59% say they had considered leaving education employment because of concerns about their own mental health and wellbeing. Many stated that the organisational culture in their school had a negative impact on their wellbeing.
We should care deeply about staff wellbeing – on a personal, professional, leadership and national level. Not paying attention to it leads us into a downward spiral of staff leaving, increased stress levels and less time for those that remain. The human cost to ourselves, colleagues, and the young people we should be equipped to support is enormous.
So, what can we learn? How can we support wellbeing?
It’s not something that is easy to fix, but I do believe there are some basic things that can be done to improve staff wellbeing which are within our control - whether we are in the classroom or in leadership roles. We need to be aware of what might simply be treating a symptom and not addressing the underlying causes. I often think of Catherine Carden and Adrian Bethune’s question from their study on teacher wellbeing. Although I’ve never knowingly refused a doughnut, I’d say that those sorts of gestures won’t fix much, if anything. However, thinking about the reasoning behind the gesture, what we are trying to fix and what problems our strategies might solve is a good starting point.
Certain small changes can make a big difference, but choosing things that will change the culture and address underlying causes is vital. The following is not a complete list of possibilities but aims to give starting points and food for thought.
Acknowledging that you can only do your job effectively if you take care of yourself might be a liberating place to begin. Asking yourself ‘how are you today?’ and taking time off if you are ill – and also developing habits and activities that support your own wellbeing. Small changes you can consistently apply might include:
- Taking a few minutes to be outdoors and appreciate nature, this could be on your commute or during a break. have been shown to have a positive impact on mood and conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Setting a specific time aside to speak to family and friends, do some sport, exercise or a hobby
- Having a few moments to yourself to eat something without working at the same time
Interestingly, current evidence suggests that striving to create a better work-life balance can make feelings of stress worse, not better. To me this makes sense, because the term ‘work-life balance’ implies a constant battle to pay off work against home life and vice versa. This is unattainable.
It may be more helpful to think about work and life in a more interconnected and holistic way - appreciating that sometimes there are busy times at work or at home - by planning and making conscious decisions about what to use time for and what to prioritise. This is the advice given by Catherine Carden and Adrian Bethune in chapter 20 of their book .
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1 comment



30-01-2024 11:37

Of course the self-care bit at the end of the article links strongly with the culture in your workplace, you need to be in an environment where your leadership team ansd colleagues understand the need to be off when you are sick and allow you a degree of control over work priorities. 

Adrian Bethune put it succinctly in a recent XTwitter/post 

'The 5 main drivers of workplace wellbeing, according to actual research, are: Health, relationships, security, environment, purpose. Relationships are mostly about the one you have with your line manager (if they're a wally, you'll struggle to be happy at work)'

You might like the infographic 5 key drivers of workplace wellbeing from from What works wellbeing