Fostering supportive workplace environments can create experiences that assist those who may be in need, writes Dr Gavin Hazel, Mental Health and Research Program Manager at Hunter Institute of Mental Health.
The mental health and psychological wellbeing of early career teachers is a consideration for education systems both locally and internationally. Concerns have been raised about teacher burnout, mental ill-health, and the rate of attrition among early career teachers. Although there is not conclusive evidence to suggest that mental ill-health among teachers is higher than other professions, it is clear that teachers are exposed to highly demanding and at times, stressful situations (Gardner, 2010). Safe Work Australia’s (2013) report on mental stress compensation claims identified school teachers, along with police officers and general clerks, accounting for the majority of “work pressure” claims.
Our understanding of early career teacher wellbeing is emerging. There is a growing body of literature on key dimensions such as stress, resilience, retention, the development of professional identity, and the role of social support and mentors (Gibbs & Miller, 2014). What has typically received less attention is evidence informed recommendations about how things can be done differently to better support early career teacher wellbeing. In response to this gap, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health has released the outcomes of its Start Well research project conducted in New South Wales with more than 450 graduate teachers to better understand their experiences and to make recommendations to help them start and stay well.
Start Well provides a snapshot of NSW teachers within the first five years of their careers. They were asked about what it’s like to be an early career teacher, what’s rewarding and what’s challenging about their jobs, what impacts on their wellbeing and what support they could use. Key leaders and influencers in the education sector were also interviewed to provide complementary perspectives to the direct experience of the school and classroom contexts. This was combined with a literature review of evidence on early career teacher mental health and wellbeing.
The responses revealed that early career teachers have many positive and rewarding experiences as part of starting their employment, but they are also challenged. Some of the key challenges cited in the research include a lack of work-life balance, managing their workload and responsibilities, and difficulties finding the time needed for planning and collaboration. To help meet these challenges, most early career teachers reported turning to their family, friends, colleagues, mentors and peers for support. The findings of this study suggest that good peer and social support, alongside formal processes like induction, is critical for early career teachers’ resilience and coping mechanisms, and was associated with plans to stay in teaching long-term.
Start Well identified the key aspects of perceived workload, work-life balance, and levels of peer/social support as providing modifiable features of the early career teaching experience that could be targeted for both professional and health benefits (Bennett, Newman, Kay-Lambkin, & Hazel, 2016). So what are the implications of to teachers, schools and the overall system?
There are opportunities to enhance the support of workplace mental health and wellbeing of the education community in a more intentional and targeted way at a system level. We know that well-coordinated integrated and systemic programs and approaches used in the workplace can improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce mental ill-health. Start Well recommends the adoption of strength-based approaches that emphasise wellbeing and collegiality as a mechanism to build and support teachers’ capacity to give and receive support. Digital strategies should also be considered for their capacity to work in a mutually reinforcing way with both existing and future strategies to support teacher wellbeing. The development of a blueprint for wellbeing of the education community would be a good first step in this direction. The application of a clear framework about mental health promotion, the prevention of mental-ill health and early intervention (Hunter Institute of Mental Health, 2015) would provide a way to build a sector-wide strategy.
Workplaces can have both a positive and negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. The culture of the school, and indeed the community, including its induction and mentoring procedures, can clearly help support wellbeing. Successful uptake of wellbeing and resilience innovations in the workplace context requires more than one-way communication or one-off training events. Strategies that target the whole school community, that are multi-dimensional, and are sustained over time, are more likely to help drive change.
A key challenge faced in the implementation of wellbeing programs in the workplace is that success cannot occur without change, and change is difficult. Key ingredients include: obtaining buy-in from critical stakeholders within the workforce, fostering a support climate for up-taking change, building capacity, providing support, process evaluation and feedback.
Schools can start with a focus on valuing respectful interactions, encouraging care and concern for others, and promoting a sense of belonging. These ideas are already in school communities, but it’s about ensuring that they are as relevant for the teachers as they are for the students.
Supporting teachers can start with simple strategies such as asking the right questions at the right time. Some of the most critical moments for improving the wellbeing of people can occur in their day-to-day contact with people in the workplace. These conversations and informal support strategies provide an opportunity for us to build the capacity of mentors, supervisors and school leaders to support early career teacher wellbeing. We can prepare people to actively listen, provide information about wellbeing and support their colleagues. This is not about making people clinicians, it is about strengthening their capacity to support and assist their colleagues by providing them with evidence-informed strategies, practical information and paths to connect people to other kinds of support. By fostering supportive workplace environments, we can create experiences that assist those who may be in need, as well as strengthen the teaching profession.
A WAY FORWARD
The Start Well project calls for the application of a strength-based approach, potentially leveraging technology as either an enabler or enhancer of active intervention strategies, to build teachers’ capacity to give and receive psycho-social support. These approaches should be designed to work in a mutually reinforcing way with both existing and future strategies to support teacher wellbeing and retention. We need to help all teachers start well, be well, and stay well in their profession.
The Start Well research was supported by the Teachers Health Foundation. For more information visit: www.himh.org.au/startwell
Bennett, G.A., Newman, E., Kay-Lambkin, F., Hazel, G. (2016) Start Well: A research project supporting resilience and wellbeing in early career teachers – summary report. Hunter Institute of Mental Health, Newcastle, NSW.
Gardner, S. (2010). Stress among prospective teachers: a review of the literature. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 35(8).
Gibbs, S., & Miller, A. (2014). Teachers’ resilience and well-being: a role for educational psychology. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 20(5), 609-621.
Hunter Institute of Mental Health (2015). Prevention First: A Prevention and Promotion Framework for Mental Health. Newcastle, Australia.
Johnson, B., Down, B., Le Cornu, R., Peters, J., Sullivan, A., Pearce, J., & Hunter, J. (2010). Conditions that support early career teacher resilience. Paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association Conference, Townsville, QLD.
Safe Work Australia (2013). The Incidence of Accepted Workers’ Compensation Claims for Mental Stress in Australia. Safe Work Australia, Canberra.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Gavin Hazel is dedicated to creating and sharing knowledge that helps children, families and the professionals who support them. Gavin’s work focuses on the development, implementation and evaluation of resources, practices, and professional education.
Gavin holds an honours degree in Education, a master’s degree in Educational Studies and a PhD in Educational Psychology. He is an experienced education and capability development professional, specialising in child and youth mental health, wellbeing and resilience.
Gavin is well regarded for his in-depth knowledge and understanding of learning and development, mental health promotion, knowledge translation, resource development and research.
Gavin has worked as a lecturer in teacher education, a research academic, a senior research scientist and a mental health projects manager. He holds a conjoint appointment with the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle.
Gavin leads a multidisciplinary team who work on building the capacity of professionals through practical programs, resources and polices to support children and families. He is responsible for the strategic development of research and mental health areas at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.