Wellbeing — what is it and how do we achieve it?

By Michelle Bishop

In a survey by the Gallop-Healthways wellbeing Index survey in 2013, they found that 46% of teachers experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. 

In comparison with other professions, teachers experience more stress than any other profession in Australia, the UK and the USA.  Sadly, this is not surprising information for most of those who work in education.
I have been asked by many teachers, leaders and my own staff to recommend social and emotional learning (SEL) programs for students from Kindergarten to Year 12.  I was able to provide a list of a number of evidence based SEL programs, but more and more often it came with a caveat.  The caveat being, that you could have the best program in the world, delivered by amazing teachers, in the most creative ways, but at the end of the day, it’s about the person delivering the program rather than the program itself.

In a conversation I had with Dr Mark Greenberg, co-author of the PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) Social and Emotional Learning program in 2009, we discussed the efficacy of his program.  He told me about the extensive international research, the basis in neuroscience and the rigorous training provided to staff who delivered it.  He also spoke about the changing roles of teachers in education today, and how it is affecting their ability to deliver the program effectively.  It’s difficult to teach social and emotional wellbeing, when you are not able to exhibit it yourself.  It can sometimes become a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”.  When delivering professional learning on SEL programs, the feedback that I received was quite often what staff learned about themselves and their emotional journey.

If you are stressed, which the research overwhelmingly shows that we are, then how do we achieve wellbeing? Is it measurable? How do we measure it? What are we measuring? Is it worth measuring? Is it too warm and fuzzy for it to be a real goal? These are just a few of the questions that I’ve been grappling with for many years.  These and many more are the questions I’ve been asked for many years. Unfortunately, these questions seem to evoke more stress than they evoke wellbeing, as the answers are never as simple as we hope.  It has led to many people putting it lower down on their list of priorities, preferring to deal with those things that are more tangible and easy to solve.  

I’ve grappled with why we avoid these questions, but in order to do so I had to ask what the real question is.  It’s an age-old question; how do I achieve happiness, purpose, balance, wellbeing? In order to achieve all of these things, I need to address some very personal barriers to my own happiness, purpose, balance and wellbeing. It takes courage and it’s going to take time and effort to get there, when all I want is an easy answer. If this is the case on a personal level, then dealing with this at an organisation level becomes daunting to say the least.

Where do we start at an organisation level? We start with leadership. In research by Gary Davis on: Can you Embed Positive Leadership? He suggests that we start with executive and middle management. It is important that we include managers of all departments as these departments all function as separate units who often have a different culture to what the executive team’s perception may be.  

In trying to imbed a culture of wellbeing it is important to consider some of the crucial aspects of change management, such as having a plan that includes implementation, professional learning, support throughout the process, regular review, feedback, coaching from an external provider and a timeframe of 2 to 5 years to see effective long-term change. Wellbeing is not just the absence of negativity in one’s life, but the presence of a positive physical, mental, social and emotional state in all areas of your life.  It’s about having a Growth Mindset, and practical strategies to achieve growth in all areas.  

There are some protective factors for wellbeing that we can consider for ourselves in our move towards achieving wellbeing:

  • resources to increase sense of self-efficacy.

  • connectedness with students and colleagues.

  • supported by colleagues.

  • receiving recognition for their work.

(Klassen, Perry, & Frenzel, 2012; Flook et al 2013; Gardner 2010; Schwarzer & Hallum, 2008)

There are so many ways to take the next step in our wellbeing journey:

  • Practice gratitude.

  • Engage in mindful practices.

  • Have self-compassion.

  • Give generously.

We are the profession that makes all other professions possible, and to that end our wellbeing is crucial, so that we are able to continue being the best that we can be, in order to be the best educators that we can be.

Staff WellbeingKylie Bice