Leading on staff mental health

Feb. 16, 2018
Patrick Ottley O'Connor

Patrick Ottley-O'Connor

Executive Principal and Director of Collaborative Leadership Ltd

“Look after yourself before looking after others, so that together we can make a difference for all learners”.

On my first day at Essa Academy, I shared this call to action with staff.

Now as Executive Principal at Essa Foundation Academies Trust, I am still focusing on creating a culture of wellbeing across our family of schools. I want to support my staff’s good mental health and wellbeing.

The subject is particularly important to me when I remember my own time as a school leader. I decided then that it would be a core driver of success. My wife is also a school leader and together we have five sons, so I know how necessary mental health for leaders is in making the difference for learners.

I like to use the aeroplane analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else with theirs to explain how we do things. This ‘oxygen mask’ metaphor has been instrumental in supporting us on our journey to realise our values-based vision where ‘all will succeed’.

Having high expectations of staff, with a “no excuses, no exceptions” approach to teaching is important because we must ensure that all children succeed. But on its own, this approach can lead to staff isolation and to a high-stakes and often toxic level of accountability.

So, we made this high expectations approach apply to wellbeing: we have a high expectation that our staff will look after themselves without excuse or exception.

We encourage and support all staff to see, own, solve and act on their own wellbeing, whatever that may look like. After all, one person’s pleasurable wellbeing activity maybe another person’s nightmare!


How to support staff mental health

I think it’s so important to talk openly about mental health, and celebrate those who are really looking after themselves and others. We have a scheme called ‘Wellbeing Stars of the Week’, whereby staff nominate each other in recognition of support they’ve received.

In addition, we facilitate regular #teacher5aday wellbeing activities, such as random and themed acts of kindness (such as making a drink for a weary looking colleague), strawberries and cream during Wimbledon, wellbeing bags, Crunchie Fridays and our ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ which is a Russian Roulette style prize-giving of some lovely, some cringe-worthy prizes.

There’s nothing ‘soft’ about our wellbeing approach. We prioritise staff wellbeing to increase their impact on student achievement. Children only get one shot at school and it is vital that they receive the highest quality school experiences to get them life-ready.

Making sure wellbeing is at the centre of school policy

Here are the changes we made across the trust to ensure our systems and structures supported wellbeing at every turn:

  • We made sure we considered wellbeing every time a policy was reviewed, asking questions such as ‘what impact could this have on staff mental health?’
  • We created safe spaces to address staff wellbeing issues, including classrooms, staff work rooms and meeting/counselling spaces
  • We increased the CPD budget to facilitate coaching triads for all teachers, bespoke coaching for all leaders and Mental Health First Aid training for staff
  • We championed the use of developmental support plans, occupational health referrals and counselling for staff
  • We provided a minimum of 20% PPA for all teachers from September 2018

"After all, one person’s pleasurable wellbeing activity maybe another person’s nightmare!"


Our approach has supported some staff to find their way back from mental health problems to redefine their passion and ‘mojo’ to enjoy the profession once again.

One colleague who was considering leaving the profession due to workload and mental health problems said:

“I could have turned and run. Indeed, leaving was an option, but it’s hard to walk away from something deep down you enjoy.

Instead, I reset my head and came back into school in January 2017 with a different outlook. A slight change in role, counselling, support from colleagues and time to give me headspace to fully develop in my new role helped no end.

Twelve months on and I would now consider myself once again a confident teacher. That confidence only comes through a positive approach to wellbeing. As teachers, we have to take control of what we do, not let it control us. That pile of books still gets marked, that data still gets submitted, but now it’s on my terms!

The culture of wellbeing brought in by Patrick, and being continued by Martin Knowles, the new Principal, is vital to what I do. They 'get me' as a person and that drives me on to want to do as much as I can...with my wellbeing at the centre of it! I’m now a wellbeing coach supporting others.”

We found our approach to be effective, replicable and sustainable. In 2015, I became the principal of a different academy with the challenging context of leadership instability, significant underperformance and staff felt real frustration with workload, initiative overload, low morale and a toxic culture of accountability.

Later that year we came out of ‘special measures’, with the Ofsted report stating, “…leaders said they had been liberated from bureaucratic tasks and teachers had been freed to teach.” Staff spoke openly about how they were enthused, engaged and empowered to own their own wellbeing and prioritise their own mental health.

I will be moving on to a new leadership challenge in September, but wherever I am, I will continue to place my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others at the heart of school improvement. I aspire to be a wellbeing ‘supermodel’ by living my balance every day and talking openly with colleagues about my journey.

I am convinced that a sharp and sustained focus on staff wellbeing should be central to all we do in schools to ensure that we are mentally fit and healthy to make a difference for our learners.

Patrick Ottley-O'Connor is an Executive Principal and the Director of Collaborative Leadership Ltd. He is also an Ambition School Leadership facilitator and coach.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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