A school leader's guide to creating a happier & healthier workplace

Written by Jason Borton - Primary School Principal

One of the most significant barriers for educators is the ever increasing workload and expectations of implementing new initiatives. The increased stress and negative effect on wellbeing can be detrimental to our professional effectiveness and therefore the learning outcomes for students in our care.

At Richardson Primary School we made a collective decision to get serious about reducing our workload and enhancing our staff wellbeing. We have chosen to make a cultural shift in our school, but this is only possible when we have the necessary resources to make it happen. The additional resources that we won in last year’s Enterprise Agreement has framed this shift. It has taken the collective will in our school to make health and wellbeing a priority.

Health and wellbeing is something which is too often neglected by educators amidst our desire and commitment to do the best job we possibly can. I see too many colleagues burning themselves out with excessive work hours, unreasonable self-expectations, ridiculous external demands and a culture of just doing more and more without ever letting anything go. As a leader I think the wellbeing of the staff at our school is something which I need to support in a positive way.

Some of the concepts which I think relate to this topic include:

  • Reducing workload is a main driver to support health and wellbeing and is everyone’s business in the workplace;
  • Health and wellbeing are critical issues for leader and staff performance;
  • Reducing workload in the workplace is often about taking simple important actions; 
  • The workplace is a key place for many people to gain help;
  • Health and wellbeing works well when it builds on the existing strengths of individuals and workplaces.

We recently embarked on a mission to improve the health and wellbeing of every staff member in a number of ways. We became the first primary school in the ACT to sign up for the ‘Healthier Work Initiative’ which is a government program that works with both public and private sector employees on becoming more active in the area of health and wellbeing.

A major part of the Healthier Work initiative involved developing and implementing a plan of action. The plan consisted of the following things for our school:

  • Family Friendly Week once a term with no after school meetings. Staff are encouraged to leave by 4pm each day this week; 
  • Fruit supplied weekly by the school for the staffroom to provide a healthy snack option; 
  • Foam rollers provided for staff to use for low-impact exercise; 
  • Weekly after school fitness sessions provided by an external provider and funded as part of the school professional learning budget; 
  • A commitment by all staff to providing healthy options for all staff morning teas/lunches etc.; 
  • Agreed work hours to avoid excessive workload; 
  • Engage a massage therapist once per term to provide seated massage for all staff;
  • Purchase a smoothie machine for staff use; 
  • Broker a deal with Active Leisure Centre gym for discounted staff memberships; 
  • Subscribe to the Happy Schools weekly newsletter. 

These actions have contributed significantly to staff morale, positive mindsets about looking after ourselves and created a culture that promotes wellbeing as a significant part of our school community.

In addition to this targeted project we have put together a workload committee which meets regularly to discuss issues of workload effecting staff. We then work together to address the issues on a case by case basis. We also engage in a once per term audit of operational activities, which involves looking at what we need to STOP, START and CONTINUE doing as a staff. We can’t continue to just add tasks to our daily workload, so if we’re going to take on something new then what are we going to stop doing to make room for it?

Ongoing reflections have led us to decluttering our days and minimising disruptions to class teaching time. This in itself has helped lower teacher stress which can be heightened by not feeling they have enough time to achieve the things they want to with their class. We have reduced our student reports to a one-page snapshot of learning which has significantly impacted on teacher stress during ‘reporting season’. This was a terrific action which galvanised staff morale.

I believe that working in schools is a rewarding job and being a Principal is an absolute privilege. I think that all staff need to be at their best when the ‘game’ is on between 9-3 when the students are there. In order to achieve this goal we need to look after ourselves, manage workload, work smarter not harder and get decent rest when we are away from school. I encourage our staff to avoid coming into school during the holiday break. I ask them to consider using the time to recharge their batteries so that they return to school energised, refreshed and well-rested.

In saying all this, I need to say that I have been leading from the front when it comes to my own personal health and wellbeing. There’s no use me saying one thing and then being the first to school and the last to leave every day. I have two young children to consider and I don’t ever want to be good at my job at the expense of being a father.

I’m not the one who spends excessive hours at school stressing over compliance or feeling like I’m always too busy to talk to people or listen to what they have to say. I drop my two kids at school once a week as a routine way to stay connected with them and their schooling. I regularly leave work at a reasonable hour and fit in a quick gym session on the way home. I limit my work week to an absolute maximum of 50 hours and regularly do significantly less than that.

I want to promote wellbeing and workload reduction as a critical aspect of my role. I actually want staff to look at me and see a Principal who enjoys the job and doesn’t look worn out all the time. I want them to think that it would be a good job to have. I have another 20-25 years in this profession and I refuse to burn myself out in an attempt to perform a heroic number of hours. My productivity drastically reduces after about 5pm each day so I’d be wasting my time staying at work much past then in any case.

My school is on the right track, but we’re not infallable. At the moment, we only have government guarantees for workload reduction resources until November next year. We need long term commitments for the continued funding of these resources.

Educator wellbeing is important so let’s not brush it aside because we haven’t got time for it.


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