The Idea of Wellbeing: messages from healthcare to education

I’ve been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures by Dr Atul Gawandi.  He’s a very engaging speaker and his fourth lecture, The Idea of Wellbeing,  struck me as containing messages for leaders, and particularly leaders in schools.

Gawandi’s grandfather inherited the family farm and all its debt when the monsoon rains didn’t come and the harvest failed.  Bread and salt were all his grandparents had to live on.  They were starving to death.

‘But he prayed, he stayed at the plough, and his prayers were answered’

Whether you are a person of prayer or not, having faith and staying at the plough, are essential in leadership.  You need faith in others: that they will fulfil the potential you have seen in them, and you need the determination to ‘stay at the plough’ even when the ground is uneven.

Gawandi advocates the use of simple checklists to ensure basic procedures are followed, which significantly improve successful childbirth (like washing of hands to prevent the spread of infection for example).  However, he also acknowledges

‘Just because you have a roadmap does not mean anyone is going to follow it’

He is pointing here to what all effective leaders know: issuing edicts without attention to their impact on those charged with following the ‘checklist’ (or policy) is doomed to failure.  Just ask any headteacher whose school doesn’t have a school kitchen and recently had to introduce free school meals for infants!  There may be practical reasons, he points out, why people cannot follow these checklists.  Those can be conquered through imagination and determination.  In other situations, he explains, people

‘have simply not made it their habit and no-one cares’

No-one cares.  Engaging hearts and minds, giving them an understanding of why they are being asked to follow a particular course of action, and ensuring that everyone cares (that’s called mutual accountability in other circles) is essential.

‘If no-one cares when someone takes the trouble to do things right, nothing changes’

‘Catch them doing good’ is a mantra of positive behaviour management in schools.  Adults need feedback no less.  ‘No news is good news’ doesn’t cut it for many people as a motivator.  Tell them when they’re doing a good job, and tell them what it is that makes it good.  Gawandi identifies the importance of community engagement and ownership as crucial factors in changing culture

‘The key was coaching them to notice when each other were successful or not successful – and to care’

I work with schools whose leaders want to sustain and develop resilience because resilience helps people to stay at the plough.

Most school leaders, when asked, know what undermines their resilience and what sustains it; but they don’t act on that knowledge.  Just because you have a roadmap does not mean anyone is going to follow it

At all levels of education we have colluded with a culture which expects staff unfailingly to put children and young people first. Too many people have lost sight of the need to take care of themselves in order to be able to give their best to others. They have simply not made it their habit and no-one cares.

If no-one cares when someone takes the trouble to do things right, nothing changes.  If we collude with the notion that we can just keep on keeping on, without stopping to notice whether we’re going in the right direction, and whether our physical and emotional needs are being met, more and more teachers will step out of the pressurised environment in which they work, and fewer and fewer leaders will step into the top position where, it seems, you have to expect your staff to be superhuman in order to achieve success.

Can we coach each other to notice when we’re successful in looking after our own well-being, and to care as much about ourselves as we do about others?

5 ways to wellbeingAs a start, introduce the new economics foundation’s five ways to wellbeing  to your colleagues and make it your habit to care for your own wellbeing as much as you care about that of others.  It’s the first step on the road to building and sustaining resilience.  If you want to do more, consider joining colleagues on a journey  to explore resilience.