Emails: information or intrusion | Education Support
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Emails - teachers and education staff wellbeing

Emails: information or intrusion

26th February 2020

Email communication, where it isn’t carefully considered, can negatively impact  staff wellbeing. Deputy Headteacher Andrew Cowley looks at the pitfalls of email communications and how to develop protocols that priortise staff wellbeing and work-life balance. 

In recent months there has been much talk on social media on the impact of school emails on staff wellbeing, a subject discussed by the Anna Freud Centre and also features in a report by Ofsted.

In researching for this piece, tone and content of emails was the greater concern, intrusive timing less so.

Some reactions have been along the lines of “It’s all well and good not having emails at weekends and evenings, but that is no help when the emails we do receive set short deadlines, are critical and sometimes aggressive in tone,” or that “..the notifications start pinging at 7am on Monday..not the best start to my wellbeing week.”

Communication is an area that however much we try there will be someone who hasn't got the message as any school leader who has managed a sudden snow closure can attest to.

Email, though efficient, can be impersonal and those who don’t think before they send may appear rude or blunt. A round robin email announcing a new initiative, a sudden and unexpected deadline or requiring additional work from teachers already burdened will cause resentment but as likely generate pressure or unease. Where schools do not have email ‘curfew’ it is not uncommon for staff to send and respond to emails late at night or weekends.

Communication, where it isn’t carefully considered, can impact upon wellbeing. So when look at protocols for email and making this a core area of our wellbeing strategy, it needs a two-fold approach; time and tone. We also need to consider the sometimes thorny issue of interactions with parents.

Creating an email protocol

Here are a few points to bear in mind in drawing up an email protocol.

  1. Encourage your staff to take their school emails off their phones. This will avoid the constant notifications, and the anxiety that may bring. Logging on via a desktop or laptop then gives control to the staff member for when they wish to read their communication. Taking email off the phone ensures that it is a personal device in its entirety.
  2. Staff emails should only be sent on recognised staffmail accounts. This is for security reasons as much as for a clear separation between work and personal communication.
  3. Senior Leaders need to model their email protocol and live by it.
  4. Emails should only be sent, where possible, during the working day (i.e. after 7am and before 6pm) and not at weekends. The only exception to this might be the weekly staff email, containing diary and newsletter for the week, which might arrive after these times because of the work commitments of the senior leader drafting it. This email should be the only one that needs to be read before the start of school on Monday as it contains crucial information.

    If an email has to be sent outside of the guidance times, it should not contain any demand or request for a task to be completed. Encourage your staff to look at delayed sending.

  5. Do you need to send that email? If you are in a small enough school that you can have a conversation about an essential matter, provided you are on site. For schools on multiple sites though, email is efficient and quick.

    Volume of email can be an issue. We all get frustrated at the “I didn’t receive the email” response, especially when it can be proved it was sent, but if a colleague has a constant stream of emails over a weekend, they may genuinely have not seen something. Also remember, despite the amount of electronic communication available, there are still a few technophobes in teaching.

  6. Tone of email is crucial. No email should contain a rebuke, challenge or criticism of the recipient or other member of staff/child/parent: an email is permanent and cannot be unsent. If your school is one which requires plans to be sent to SLT and for them to feedback with ‘amendments’ think long and hard about what this says to the recipient; “Not good enough” or words to that effect. Imagine the impact on a young teacher receiving this at 7pm on a Sunday evening.

    Consider the effect of the words on the recipient. Don’t type in haste and think before sending. This is another consideration for taking emails off phones. If we reply on our phones, we will email like we text, and this may be done in anger or frustration.

Communication with parents

Some schools allow parental communication with teachers by staff email. I believe this is full of potential pitfalls. For one, parents may not feel guided by the school protocols and may send emails at any time, often demanding an instant answer, which the teacher may be unable to provide.

School culture, and this is admittedly easier to address in primary schools, should focus on face-to-face communication with parents, as the best way of solving any problems and to forming the mutually supportive relationships that are crucial to a child’s development.

A preferable form of communication would be through parental communication apps. Such apps should only be on school tablets and class computers, not on personal devices. This will remove the anxiety of the parental message at midnight.

Parents should be reminded of the school email time protocol and consider their use of the app for their own wellbeing. Teachers should not answer messages out of the times set for emails.

The following is a generic message which could be sent as an occasional reminder to parents:

Good morning everyone

Can I take this opportunity to remind parents about how we intend the parent communication app to be used.

Class teachers have the app on their class tablet and on the classroom computer. This means they will only be able to send any messages during the time they are in school. Teachers do not have the app on their personal devices. This aligns with our staff email policy which references hours and days that emails may be sent.

We intend to use the app for sending positive messages to parents about the children’s achievements in school.

If you have anything to ask your child’s teacher anything, please use the contact book, speak to them at the end of the day or telephone the school to arrange an appointment. If these requests are on the app, they may well be missed.

Thank you.

These simple guidelines should be easy to include in school wellbeing and communication policies to help make email communications less obtrusive for staff and reduce the impact on their wellbeing.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit.

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