Colluding with an unhealthy culture?

A recent piece in the Guardian asks the question. ‘Do you know what too fat looks like?’  The Guardian was reporting on a small-scale academic study in the US which led to the conclusion that women who are themselves overweight see only those noticeably more overweight than themselves as being ‘too fat’.  Their judgement is based on a ‘cultural belief’ about what is an acceptable weight, which is at odds with the judgement of the medical profession.  What is culturally acceptable and what is useful, healthy, or desirable may be at odds.

My contribution to the TES’s What keeps me awake at night (10 October 2014) pointing to the potential  impact of leaders on teachers’ stress levels,  is complemented by Tom Bennett’s contribution in the same edition concerning work-life balance (Champion of the world(s)).  Teachers have always worked hard.  Now, he points out, the pace is frenetic (my word, not his).  My experience as a leadership coach and governor tells me that this frenetic lifestyle is now accepted as part of the culture.  Like those in the US survey, teachers can’t see that their lifestyle is unhealthy.  What is ‘normal’ isn’t necessarily desirable or productive.  A recent report from the University of Lancaster’s Work Foundation  reviews the research evidence for a link between teachers’ wellbeing and students’ attainment.  While further work needs to be done, the report points to an earlier study by Briner and Dewberry (2007)  which concluded that

‘ if policy makers want to improve student outcomes, then the health and wellbeing of teachers should be considered.’

With the promise of further budget cuts to come, we have to take this seriously.  Teachers, leaders, and (what a thought!) even the government needs to cut a little slack.  Constant pressure is counter-productive to the conscientious (who already put themselves under pressure) and ineffective in the long term to those few who don’t.

Changing culture takes time and a commitment from everyone to avoid becoming a victim of the system.

Leaders can help by

  • Reviewing and, where necessary, adjusting systems: what are the costs (time/energy/finance) against the benefits? And getting staff to do the same
  • Creating a coaching culture, which supports individuals in taking responsibility for themselves
  • Communicating clearly and consistently, seeking and accepting feedback (which gives you the choice of whether to act on it)
  • Investing in and valuing high quality administrative support
  • Accepting that sometimes good enough is good enough
  • Never using the ‘threat’ of Ofsted as a motivator for change. It creates a climate of fear: people want to feel safe.   It also communicates to staff that Ofsted are in control: you’re not.
  • Allowing staff to work at home when appropriate. If you don’t trust them to do so, what does it say about your leadership?
  • Modelling the importance protecting time to think through regular sessions with a skilled coach
  • Making an effort (and it does require effort) to build and sustain their own resilience and supporting their staff to do the same
  • Championing the cause of reducing the pressure in the system

Sometimes, it’s okay to be the only one in step