Thriving at Barker: Staff Wellbeing

At the recent Anglican Schools Australia conference in Hobart I felt honoured to be asked to speak as the final speaker in the  7*7*7 presenters (7 topics, 7 speakers, 7 minutes). The following is a slightly edited version of my presentation.

The word “thrive” means much more than simply to survive. It conveys the notion of  seizing all we have to prosper and flourish. Of holding our intellectual and spiritual  self in a harmonious whole. At Barker we have determined this as our purpose (bold? Yes!)….to inspire everyone in our community to thrive.

Over the last couple of years, we have begun to describe “Thriving at Barker” as standing on 4 pillars  (Inquiry, Rhetoric, Gratitude and Service) the first two referring to our cognitive and intellectual  growth, the second two referring to wellbeing and resilience. We initially focused on student wellbeing only, but how can we expect our students to thrive when we are not also focusing on our staff? So, 2018 saw the inclusion of staff in our language around “thrive”.

While the morning teas and coffee vans on PD days were wonderful, we questioned whether this was enough. Surely staff wellbeing is more than a “candles and yoga” approach? We wanted a truly sustainable approach. Taking a health and safety perspective,  we understood it was essential that the work environment is conducive to good physical health, good mental health, good spiritual health and supportive for all our staff.

In late 2018, we  partnered with CommuniCorp, an external consultancy provider which specialises in  promoting workplace psychological health and safety to conduct a ‘health check’ of  the current state of the School’s work environment. This included a staff engagement  survey and discussion process to understand current impacts on work roles and work practices, to uncover concerns that may be contributing to areas of workplace stress or poor health, and to identify improvements to current workplace.

What we found was this….

Firstly, an excellent alignment to the vision of the School and an embracing of the School values, with staff highly committed to the success of the School. Well, that was a relief!

Secondly, a culture of highly respectful and supportive relationships and thirdly, a strong emphasis and success in achieving physical safety.

However, we also found that there were some concerns around work roles and the structure of areas within the School which has impact on the clarity of expectations, work design and communication flow.

There were general concerns around leadership consistency and support with decision making and staff management, around consistency with performance management processes and how staff concerns were addressed.

There was a need for enhanced mental health awareness and a policy position around wellbeing in the workplace.

There were concerns that staff were not given clear feedback on how they are going, what they can improve on and how they can continue to grow in their career.

These findings led to a focus area on sustainable staff wellbeing in our 5 year strategic plan  implemented in early 2019.

We commenced initiatives to enhance an environment that is conducive to good mental health and supportive for all staff. These initiatives included;

  • proactive return to work programs for non-work related illnesses and injuries
  • the establishment of a staff wellbeing reference group to design a wellbeing policy and framework which incorporates the physical, emotional and spiritual domains of wellbeing
  • a leadership training strategy designed to upskill Heads of Department in people leadership
  • a focus on embedding a culture of continuous feedback,  a simple yet effective framework for continuous conversations and performance appraisal to provide growth opportunities, professional development and career pathways for all staff
  • a partnership with Voice Care Australia and an online program of voice care for teachers

Raising mental health awareness, decreasing the stigma of mental illness, and  providing a framework for which to initiate a conversation is a significant component  of a healthy workplace. In January we launched our whole school approach to raising mental health awareness through a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Strategy. We have three staff accredited as MHFA Instructors, me (from a staff perspective in HR), our  Director of Wellbeing, and one of our well regarded School Counsellors. We are running the MHFA course for adults for our Support Staff, and the MHFA Course for Youth for our staff in pastoral positions across our junior, middle and senior schools. Over 100 support and  teaching staff have now completed the Adult or Youth Mental Health First Aid training which assists in acquiring the skills to support a student, a friend,  a family member or a colleague who may be developing a mental health problem or in a  crisis. Our aim in the next two years is to incorporate the Teen MHFA program where our students are trained to identify when their peers need support, how to have that brave conversation and to assist them to seek the help of a trusted adult.

We are developing a mental health and wellbeing framework to support this work which includes the consideration of MHFA officers (just as we have First Aid Officers) and  a reflection space for staff which draws on the wonderful support and expertise of our counselling and our chaplaincy teams.

We know this is important work, we acknowledge that we are at just the beginning  of our sustainable staff wellbeing journey and we seek to continue to establish practices that are conducive to the ongoing promotion of a culture of positive wellbeing and capturing the essence of what it means to truly thrive at work. o

Alison Binet Written by:

Alison has 16 years experience in Human Resources within the education sector and works as the Head of Human Resources at Barker College in Sydney. She has a passion for the creation of safe and healthy workplaces through a sustainable wellbeing strategy.

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