Wellbeing and the role of the line-manager

In the light of the fascinating and hugely concerning findings from this year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index in this piece, Emma Kell examines the influence of line-management* on staff wellbeing.

Articles / 5 mins read

How important is the quality of line-management to wellbeing? And where are we now? 

I asked a number of colleagues this question and their responses were unanimous, including: ‘absolutely fundamental’; ‘it affects everything’. 

An executive school leader said:

"Makes a massive difference at every level, people thrive with the right amount of autonomy, kind challenge & support."

 

The way staff are line-managed on a daily basis speaks volumes about the culture of a school. As Principal Helena Marsh puts it, line management ‘can be the lens through which the school and its leadership is experienced.’

One Head of Department said this:

"My line manager is amazing. She's a brilliant role model and is very supportive. It makes a huge difference to my wellbeing as I can go to her with anything, she is constructive but also very positive."

 

Line managees are influenced by our interactions, our ways of working, our ways of being every single day and this is something worth being mindful of. Questions we should ask ourselves are:

  • Are we brave enough to be vocal about our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses?
  • How do we cope with setbacks and challenges?
  • How do we celebrate success?
  • How do we champion and enable others?
  • How do we deal with difficult and honest conversations?

People are watching and being influenced by us all of the time, and sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference.

These findings are supported by this year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index. The quality of line-management has a direct impact on the perennial issue of retention, with staff who feel trusted by the line-manager far less likely to consider leaving the profession than those who feel distrusted.

83%

of staff who did not feel trusted had considered leaving (compared to 47% of those who feel trusted)

47%

of all staff feel fully trusted by their line manager.

91%

of those who felt distrusted by their line manager felt this distrust negatively affected their wellbeing

What works? Effective line-management and its influence on wellbeing 

School staff told me about line-managers who’d had a positive effect on their wellbeing. The best ones didn’t simply give them  an easy ride. Here are some of the characteristics of great line-managers as cited by a range of education staff:

  • Effective, clear, concise and transparent communication
  • Making you feel part of a team; I remember during a period when I really struggled, a wise and kind line-manger saying ‘you are not alone, you know.’
  • Positivity – they recognise your efforts and achievements in ways that work for you (more often a quiet word than loud praise in front of all staff)
  • They encourage shared resources and ideas to reduce workload
  • They regularly check in on your work-life balance and help you prioritise effectively
  • If you make a mistake, you’re not afraid to admit it
  • They’re competent at their job (as well as being human – it’s ok to struggle!)
  • They’re reliable – a frequently underrated quality but crucial in schools! Your time with them is regular and protected
  • The language they use is careful and revealing – you work ‘with’ them not ‘for’ them
  • They are empowering and supportive. In the words of one school leader: ‘The best are coaches, give you room to grow but are not afraid to give you honest feedback when you need it’

When line-management has a negative effect on wellbeing… 

Line-managers themselves have all sorts of different roles within a school. The amount of autonomy they have varies hugely from school to school. Particularly in middle-leadership (famously referred to by Jill Berry as ‘the shit umbrella’), the line-manager can sometimes feel their hands are tied.

When it doesn’t work, the language, again, is telling. Have you sat in department meetings which begin, ‘they [aka SLT] have asked us to do this…’? Usually followed by an audible sigh? If the line-manger has limited decision making capacity or feels put-upon, the negativity is contagious.

Other examples of line-management approaches that undermine wellbeing include the following:

  • Failing to acknowledge – or indeed taking the credit for themselves – for your work or ideas
  • Inconsistency and unreliability
  • ‘Do what I say, not what I do’ – being asked to follow procedures you know your line-manager doesn’t follow themselves
  • Frequent changes of line-manager. In the words of one middle-leader, ‘I've had 11 line managers in 7 years and it makes things so difficult because you waste so much time breaking in a new one’

More extreme examples include examples of sexism, sexual harassment, being ‘screamed at’ by a line-manager who was clearly struggling themselves. 

What have we learned from this?

A HR management offers an insightful, practical and valuable way forward:

"I am a school business manager with an MSc in Human Resources and have been training and developing our line managers at school. 

Line managers need to develop psychological safety in their teams and realise that by doing this it helps wellbeing, retention, recruitment and pupils development. 

Too often in education people are promoted to be a line manager because they are a good teacher, this doesn’t mean that they are good at managing people and we need to do more to help and support them."

As the Teacher Wellbeing Index finds, managers working with staff to alleviate excessive workload is key to improving wellbeing. The to-do lists and working hours and meeting schedules need to be unpacked and examined. We should ask what really has an impact and what is truly reasonable?

Care needs to be taken to ensure that school’s values are lived out in every management exchange in the school. Poor practice must be challenged, even if it does mean committing the ultimate sin of jumping the line-management structure to find someone who can help.

I’d also advocate a healthy challenge of some of the more entrenched hierarchies in our system. Both line manager and managee are responsible for making the relationship work. During a period when I really struggled, I remember a person I line-managed saying, ‘these meetings work both ways, you know’ as she hastily sourced emergency chocolate and tea. When was the last time you checked in one your line-manager’s wellbeing? Do you say thank you when they go the extra mile? In the words of a wise headteacher, tragically no longer with us, support everyone in every direction.

* For the purposes of this piece, the term line-manager is used to refer to a named member of staff (usually senior to the staff member) directly responsible for the performance and development of a given staff member.

Emma is a teacher, coach, speaker and writer specialising in teacher wellbeing.

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