This guest blog is by Sinead McBrearty, CEO of Education Support, the UK’s only charity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of the entire education workforce.

2020 was an extraordinary year for everyone connected with schools.

As well as being CEO of Education Support, I am a governor of a South London primary school so have seen first-hand the impact of the pandemic on school operations and staff wellbeing.  Like most people across the country, I’ve been managing concerns about the health and safety of my own loved ones: it takes very little imagination for me to relate the concerns and difficulties faced by school staff this year.

As governors, we are juggling the health and safety aspects of Covid-19 – supporting our schools to stay open and to manage the impact of virus transmission, as well as worrying about pupil learning loss. In the midst of all that, we are close enough to schools to see the pressure and strain on staff and pupils.

As we turn our attention to staff wellbeing, it can be hard to balance the desire to help and be supportive, with the awareness that asking staff to do something about wellbeing may create yet another demand at a time of low or no capacity.  The irony of generating more pressure in pursuit of wellbeing is not lost on many of us.

As a governor in this context, I have tried to find ways to support staff wellbeing without generating a big requirement for the leadership to do more.  In terms of what is most crucial for wellbeing, I’m keeping it simple this year:

1. Show appreciation genuinely, and often

Governors are leaders within schools. That means we have the opportunity to positively support staff. Find ways to recognise, acknowledge and appreciate staff regularly, formally and informally.

It is easy to forget how much impact our recognition can have on individuals, but be assured: staff job satisfaction and motivation increase when people feel appreciated.

School staff have been phenomenal this year, managing personal anxiety and difficult circumstances to continue to provide a stable environment for children and young people.  You don’t have to look very hard to find a long list of things to appreciate.

2. A formal strategy isn’t essential for taking steps toward better staff wellbeing

If there isn’t a formal, documented staff wellbeing strategy, that’s ok.  A Wellbeing Link governor can talk to the Head/SLT to understand their thinking and approach to staff.

By listening to how they think about staff wellbeing, and understanding the actions that they take to support it, governors can help school leaders to articulate their implicit strategy for staff wellbeing.  We can be helpful by playing this back to SLT, even in the form of a Link Governor report.

This is not the year to ask school leaders to write strategies or any additional documentation, but governors can be supportive in capturing what is happening in practice in the school.  By doing this, we give SLT ‘a starter for ten’ or some language that they can then share with staff as they begin to articulate and draw attention and awareness to the support that is provided within the school.

3. Engage with staff compassionately

Governors of course need to hold school leaders to account, but this can be done in many different ways.  Recognise the demands on leaders in the current context, and choose to engage with compassion and empathy, even if there are difficult conversations to be had.

Compassion isn’t a faked friendliness or ticking off the “How are you?” question. It’s about genuinely being present with another person or people and responding with kindness and with an intention to help.  Being compassionate doesn’t diminish our governance role – it just makes the whole experience more human. It also goes a long way in role modelling compassionate leadership – if we want this across the education sector, then it has to start with us.

At the start of this new year, we have so much to appreciate in our school workforce.  Our senior leaders will remain under unusual pressure for the remainder of this academic year.  Find the time to reach out to thank them, and before you ask them to do anything additional, ask yourself: is this really necessary? Will it make a material difference to the school in the near term? Is it really a priority in a pandemic?

If a member of your staff or SLT need to talk to someone, don’t forget that our free helpline is open 24/7 to anyone working in the education sector. They can call 08000 562 561 to speak confidentially to a qualified counsellor at any time of day or night.