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Five Essential Employee Well-Being Strategies

Workforce shortages. Burnout. Retention. Turnover. Hiring. Unrealistic Job Demands. If you feel like you’ve been running on a hamster wheel, you are not alone. It’s time to take a breath and think about workplace well-being.

Unprecedented levels of employee burnout — combined with a national mental health crisis and labor shortages in most industries — are prompting many employers to rethink employee well-being as both a responsibility and strategy to remain competitive in hiring and retention.

Leading for Well-Being

Employee well-being is at the heart of an employer’s responsibility to its employees. While each employee may define their personal well-being differently, employers have a responsibility for workplace well-being (job demands, workload, culture) and now employers have a framework for facilitating planning and conversation at a systemic level.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Well-Being articulates five essentials for all employers. Grounded in research on health and human needs, the framework applies to every industry sector, including education.

“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities. . . we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being… It will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

The framework sets forth five essentials that can help us reimagine our workplaces into ‘engines of well-being’ and ensure that our most important resources—our people—are valued and protected. School leaders: This includes you

      1. Foster a sense of connection (social support and belonging)
      2. Show workers they matter (dignity and meaning)
      3. Promote work-life harmony (autonomy and flexibility)
      4. Support growth (learning and accomplishment)
      5. Protect workers from harm (physical and psychological)

The framework acknowledges that many factors outside the workplace can impact well-being, but adopting this framework provides an opportunity for your school system to define critical priorities that shape the culture of your organization — as a healthy place to work and a place people want to be.


Connection and community

We all need to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves. In education, relationships reign. Fostering collaboration and teamwork, building trusted relationships, and creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, free from discrimination and bias, is the second essential for workplace well-being.

This framework lays out three goals, in addition to DEIA policies, that can “improve work well-being and protect against harmful effects of workplace stress.

Fostering Supportive Supervisor Relationships

Thoughtfully onboarding and supporting new employees, developing a robust internal communication strategy, and building a culture of trust are small changes that lead to big payoffs. The goal is incremental improvement versus sweeping overhaul.

Fostering Supportive Coworker Relationships and Social Belonging

Promoting teamwork and peer support can increase employees’ sense of social belonging at work. Take a look at the departments within your organization. Do they operate with a sense of protectiveness and a bit of “you don’t understand how hard we have it” attitude, or does each group openly support the organization as a whole? Each person, team and department has unique needs and challenges. Encouraging staff to recognize one another and openly learn from one another can help foster coworker support and positive relationships.

Of course, cultivating a sense of fun, with humor and camaraderie, is important. For school leaders who themselves are bogged down by weighty work, this is an excellent reminder to get out of your office and interact with staff and students in a lighthearted way—at least a few times a week. Reading to an elementary class, popping into a high school elective, or sharing lunch with staff can be a good way to ground yourself in the why you do what you do. And remember to snap photos while you’re out—your school community loves to see their leaders interacting with students.

Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork

High-quality communication, shared goals, and mutual respect between members are essential to teamwork and workplace well-being. Ensuring that everyone receives important communications, no matter what “rung on the ladder” they occupy. When people understand how their work impacts others and what challenges they collectively and individually face, you provide an opportunity for teams to develop mutual respect. It can be tricky to balance valuable meetings with too many meetings, but it’s important that no team or department works in a total vacuum.

Work-life harmony

As school leaders, you’ve likely spent your career focusing on the needs of students and staff, but now it’s time to put on your own oxygen mask. Creating a culture of work-life harmony means intentionally modeling well-being practices. Ensure that vacation time is honored, digital boundaries are established (resist checking your emails before bed or when you first wake up!), and budget your energy and time just like you might set a financial budget.

We know work doesn’t wait when someone is out of the office. Therefore, it’s necessary to create an emergency sub plan (like this school PR sub plan), so someone else can handle vital tasks when needed. Identify cross-training and role coverage needs to allow rest/recharging at appropriate times.

Set and communicate practices that prioritize work-life harmony. For example, the Hamilton-Wentworth District developed a right-to-disconnect procedure.

A well-being culture starts at the top. In a 2022 study of Minnesota school principals (n=496), less than one-third (31%) prioritized their personal well-being at least weekly during the last year, and 65% reported less effectiveness in their roles. Minnesota school principals were squeezed between trying to meet the needs of their students and employees and the demands of the district, the state, and the general public. Overall, 83% reported lower well-being.

“We know a healthy school environment begins with effective and engaged leadership—free of burnout, emotional exhaustion, and fatigue,” said Janet Swiecichowski, EdD, APR and CEL’s Vice President who conducted the study. “We ask a lot of school principals. They inspire collective efficacy of teachers and set the tone for a positive school climate. They lead by example.

Only when educators thrive will the students they serve have the same opportunity. The performance of a school can never surpass the capabilities of its staff.” JANET SWIECICHOWSKI

Mattering at work

Mattering at work includes the following key components:

  • Providing a living wage
  • Engaging workers in workplace decisions
  • Building a culture of gratitude and recognition
  • Connecting individual work with the organizational mission

Taking time to reflect on the importance and impact of work is good for the soul. Good leaders practice appreciation and gratitude.

Your communications strategies should align with your organizational mission and goals, helping workers see the connection between their tasks and the school system’s purpose and mission as a whole. This may look like recognizing individuals, teams, and departments for their work (beyond National Bus Drivers Day), elevating the importance of each position within the district and ensuring that all new hires understand how their role supports your mission. Workplace engagement is a significant driver of educator retention.

“Social science experts are clear about the importance of empathy,” said Janet Swiecichowski. “Everyone in the workforce wants to feel appreciated, seen and valued. There’s never been a better time to tell the stories that spotlight your teachers and staff as the community heroes they are.”

Opportunity for growth

You may already have robust growth opportunities for educators, including training, education and mentoring opportunities. Are there opportunities for other roles within your organization? Opportunities can include:

  • Conference registration and travel
  • Training or boot camps
  • Certifications and credentials
  • Online subscriptions
  • Reimbursements for books and guides
  • Tuition assistance
  • New software/office tools

Mentorship and growth opportunities are key to enticing younger generations into your workforce. New hires want a sense of connection to your organization and mission. Understanding your new hires’ motivations, skills, and passions can ensure you’re pairing the right person with the right job. Ensure equitable pathways for advancement by making opportunities available and accessible to every worker.

Adopting the Framework

To identify your priorities within the framework, you can take several preliminary steps (and most likely, you’ve already done much of this work):

Assess the well-being needs of your employees on a systemic level. This may include a staff survey to identify engagement, burnout or workplace stressors. Ask employees in mid-year checks what is working and what is not. What are the greatest workplace stressors? What is fueling energy and motivation, and what is depleting it? Both Gallup’s Q12 and Mind Garden’s MBI have respected survey instruments. Develop baseline metrics to measure your well-being strategies over time (the problem has developed over time and will take time to change.)

Using pulse surveys, asking a few questions can provide a good baseline:
From the MBI-2: “I feel burned out,” and “I have become more callous toward people since I started this job,” have high reliability for indicating burnout.  Two questions validated to assess meaning and fulfillment are: What percent of your time at work did you enjoy your job? What percent of the time do you feel your efforts are making a positive difference for students?

Develop and implement policies and practices that support well-being. Reduce the number of initiatives, programs and new adoptions that are overloading the system and its people. Dr. Doug Reeves advocates for explicitly retiring initiatives and engaging employees in creating a What to Stop Doing list.

Engage staff in the process. It may be counter-intuitive to ask staff to help redesign their work or develop workplace well-being practices, but involving employees in decisions that affect their work is foundational to employee engagement and effectiveness. A school’s well-being needs can be complex, and involving staff can ensure you’re targeting resources in the most effective areas. Also look for community partners in the medical and mental health arena who can bring expertise into your schools through on-site therapy sessions, guided classes, coaching or professional development.

Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies. Set methods to collect data regularly and identify areas of improvement.

Protection from harm

Based on the human needs for safety and security, “protecting all workers from physical and non-physical harm, including injury, illness, discrimination, bullying, and harassment.

On a basic level, this includes access to comprehensive healthcare coverage and mental health services and policies that allow for time off for mental health care.

Safety includes continued efforts to reduce violence, promote positive student behavior, and promote equity, inclusion and accessibility.

It may also mean rethinking some long-standing bad habits: inadequate time for bathroom breaks, working and responding to emails late at night, and working through lunch.

Sleep is basic to human functioning. Inadequate rest increases the likelihood of on-the-job mistakes, injuries and interpersonal conflict. Sleep deprivation also decreases leadership effectiveness in decision-making, relationship-building and interpersonal effectiveness.  Long work hours “have also been shown to raise workers’ risk for exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.” Let’s stop praising people for being available 24/7 or “constantly going above and beyond.”

“There is a tendency for people to view burnout as a personal mental health issue, but it’s the workplace and chronic job stressors that are the sources of burnout.”
-Dr. Christina Maslach

Public education has an employee recruitment and retention problem. At the same time, other industries are in the midst of an evolution in workplace well-being.

By adopting this framework for workplace well-being, you can make meaningful progress in supporting (and keeping!) the people in your schools. “It’s never about me; it’s always about us,” said Cindy Leines, CEL founder and CEO. “Success isn’t climbing over others to get to the top; it’s lifting each other up so that we all succeed.”

Successful workplaces depend on creating healthy, human-centered environments. Forward-thinking leaders will be wise to engage employees in rethinking the future of work and employee experience if they want to attract and retain a quality workforce.

Published on: January 4, 2023