Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust shares tips for nurturing staff wellbeing and mental health

Dan Morrow - 17 April, 2020

Category : Blog

Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust shares tips for nurturing staff wellbeing and mental health

As part of our programme of webinars – “Adapting to Change: Managing your Schools and Staff Remotely” – we invited Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust, to share his strategies for staff mental health and wellbeing across his trust  Dan discussed the responsibility of trust leaders to their staff, particularly during the Coronavirus crisis,

As part of our programme of webinars – “Adapting to Change: Managing your Schools and Staff Remotely” – we invited Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust, to share his strategies for staff mental health and wellbeing across his trust 

Dan discussed the responsibility of trust leaders to their staff, particularly during the Coronavirus crisis, and how he’s shaped policies around what makes a real difference to staff. We’ve put together the key takeaways from Dan’s fantastic talk and also included his slides below.

His main tips were:

  • Treat your staff as people – build policies around their reality
  • Listen to staff – send out surveys to find out where they need support
  • Invest in mental health and wellbeing and reap rewards in the long term
  • Check in with staff during this difficult time – have good communication in place

A human approach to leadership

The philosophy that guides Dan’s strategy is that “wellbeing isn’t something you can just tack on – it needs to be based in culture and action”. Since arriving at Woodland Academy Trust, a trust of four Primary schools in North Kent, Dan has brought wellbeing and mental health onto the agenda, replacing the previous “compliance mindset” which he says did not treat staff “as people first”. 

He’s introduced initiatives such as wellbeing dogs, paid wellbeing days and CPD pathways staff can shape themselves, which have  turned around the trust’s previously high level of staff absence, sickness and turnover rate. They’ve achieved this, Dan explains, by shaping wellbeing policies around their staff – which makes them feel heard and creates a reciprocal culture where “people want to get out of bed and come to work every day.” 

“A contract is very important but as you see at the moment, it isn’t a contract that’s driving behaviour – it’s relationship, it’s duty, and it’s need” 

In times of crisis, recognise your staff’s realities

The last few weeks have proven to Dan that the most important thing for his employees is their families and home life. As a leader, he believes you have to work your decisions around the reality of peoples’ lives. “It’s important we understand that sometimes life happens”, Dan says. With this in mind, the trust has re-examined their bank of policies to make them family-friendly and focused on workload. Making these adjustments has cut down on the number of staff calling in sick because of dependency issues or an issue that would have previously forced them to take unpaid leave.

In shaping wellbeing policies across the whole trust, Dan sent out surveys to his staff to make sure they were on board with everything he was proposing. “The worst thing you can do in wellbeing” according to Dan, “is to announce a strategy which you’re effectively doing to your staff and they may not actually want”. The surveys helped Dan’s team understand what would really make a difference to staff. For example, they had proposed wellbeing workshops but staff said the most valuable thing for them was more time. Dan’s team took this and introduced the idea of paid wellbeing days which staff can use for something that’s important to them, whether that’s to “attend weddings, the first day of their children’s school or a spa day with a friend they hadn’t seen for 30 years. Why not?” 

Give staff a voice

An essential part of Dan’s leadership strategy is listening to his staff. When he started as CEO, he met with every member of staff to get to know them as individuals, ask them how they are and what they need. The aim of these conversations was to build the relationship on “a shared sense of culture and vision”. In a trust the size of Woodland, it was possible (and important to Dan) for the Executive Team to hold these conversations, but for larger trusts Dan suggests this may be done on a Division or Director basis. Dan plans to check in with staff in this way again when schools return after the Coronavirus crisis. 

Woodland’s people-first approach extends to staff development, where Dan ensures that initiatives are geared towards what staff actually need and want to work on. Staff can now create their own CPD pathways and take secondments or work experience opportunities, which gives them “a voice in where their development is going”. Staff are also encouraged to take part in networking and to be active in discussions within the education sector on social media. 3 out of 4 of Woodland staff are now involved in Twitter or LinkedIn which, Dan says, demonstrates how staff feel more ownership over their career.

“Being part of a broader narrative of education has been really important for colleagues to find their place within our sector”

Prioritise mental health

As part of the overall strategy at Woodland “WAT CAIRS” (Woodland Academy Trust Care, Aspiration, Inspiration, Respect and Stewardship), they believe that leadership should be “part of the solution to problems” that staff face in their lives. For this reason, a free employee counselling service is available for staff, which has been particularly useful during the difficult few weeks since the Coronavirus outbreak. They also run a wellbeing dogs scheme, which has been incredibly popular, both with children and staff. Initiatives like these are relatively cheap and help to “lift the spirits and make it feel like work has an aspect of care to it.” 

And those costs have paid off. Staff retention has risen to over 95%, saving over £ 300, 000 in recruitment costs over three years. Days lost to sickness has reduced significantly, too, falling from 11% in 2015-16 to 3.1% last year, which has cut the need for external cover. 

Check in with staff during Coronavirus

As a result of the Coronavirus crisis, Woodland Academy Trust has taken many lessons which will inform their wellbeing policy going forward. In this challenging time full of anxiety, Dan’s attitude is “it’s incumbent on us leaders now to ensure that staff understand that their wellbeing is being prioritised.” One of the immediate practical measures he took to put anxiety to rest was to reassure his staff around pay. Communication was also key – teams are encouraged to check in with each other regularly and new protocols and practices have been produced so everyone is comfortable working remotely. They’ve also provided close support for the more vulnerable members of staff.

Dan predicts that following this crisis, wellbeing and mental health are going to be higher on the agenda so leaders should “ensure staff have the professional capabilities, the personal resilience and the team around them to be successful”.

You can look through Dan’s presentation below which includes useful links for teachers to resources, podcasts and blogs to access during lockdown.  

We have lots more webinars coming up in our programme Adapting to Change. The next few will be conversations between MAT Leaders and Arbor’s CEO, James Weatherill. For more details on what’s coming up, check out our blog.

If you have any questions about the webinars, or about how Arbor MIS could help your trust, you can get in touch at tellmemore@arbor-education.com, or give us a call on 0208 050 1028. 

To find out how to manage and report on the Coronavirus situation in Arbor, you can read our latest blog, or find practical advice on our Help Centre

About Author

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Dan Morrow

CEO of Woodland Academy Trust