After more than a year and a half of hybrid operations and still more uncertainties ahead, faculty and staff are continuing to feel stress. To foster positive school culture, wellness and employee retention, independent schools are seeking ways to help employees manage their mental health and prioritize self-care. Amber Stockham, NBOA’s director of human resources programs, asked HR and operations leaders from around the country how they’ve handled employee burnout in the past year and what new measures they will undertake in the new school year. All responses are presented here anonymously.
How are you planning to support your faculty and staff as they return to campus this fall?
- People are energized to be back on campus. Even though there are still COVID protocols, people’s attitudes and sense of comradery are much stronger going into this year. Our faculty and staff appreciate a greater sense of normalcy, even if everything isn’t exactly the same as it once was. Keeping up the positive momentum will require constant attention.
- Proactive communication remains critical. We have a weekly newsletter that addresses COVID-related questions. We don’t always have all the answers, but we do our best to be responsive and sensitive as faculty and staff take time to adjust to the new school year while providing the educational experience that meets parents’ expectations.
- A group of employees have been working nonstop since the pandemic started, and we are definitely beginning to see burnout among those folks. We are encouraging everyone, particularly those on the administrative side, to take time off to decompress, disconnect or rejuvenate when they can.
A group of employees have been working nonstop since the pandemic started, and we are definitely beginning to see burnout among those folks. We are encouraging everyone, particularly those on the administrative side, to take time off to decompress, disconnect or rejuvenate when they can.
Will leave policies at your school this year look more like pre-pandemic policies?
- We expanded our leave policies to include a “bank” of COVID-specific sick days, which employees can use to quarantine or get tested, for instance. Our goal is to remain flexible — while paying closer attention to how the system is being used.
- A lot of our staff chose not to use their PTO last year, so we let them carry over three days of PTO that they can use until the end of the calendar year. We also have what we call “family days,” which provide a reduced salary rate to employees who need time off specifically to care for a family member. It’s a creative way to encourage staff to take time off, if needed, while not penalizing their salary.
- We’ve created a flexible work schedule policy for administrators, specifically folks who have been working from home for the past year, that allows them to work remotely once a week or every other week. We’ve received very positive feedback from staff, who say that it alleviates some commuting pressure.
What pressures are your employees feeling right now, and how are you responding to them?
- As we see higher case rates in our region, with vaccinated people getting COVID, our focus has become going above and beyond the state standards to keep our staff and community as safe as possible. As soon as we’re aware of a potential exposure, we’re acting on it as quickly as possible, even if that means quarantining an entire grade. This year is all about clear communication, awareness of state and federal guidance, and being responsive when things come up.
- Our school is located in a state that has banned the requirement of vaccinations under emergency use authorizations. But that is not necessarily within the culture of our school, which has encouraged our entire population to be vaccinated when they can, according to their age bracket. In that sense, we have a culture of the school that conflicts with the city and state. Our faculty and staff are aware of the social and cultural tensions this may produce, so that’s where we anticipate seeing some concerns throughout the school year.
- Although our region has a comparatively low vaccination rate, we have a 98% vaccination rate among full-time employees. However, only about half of our coaching staff is vaccinated. Overall people are in a much better mindset than they were last year in terms of anxiety and stress, but our work ahead is to clearly communicate the school’s plans to parents, some of whom think we’re being too cautious and others not cautious enough.
Employee isolation has been a challenge. Do you have any plans to support social and emotional health and inclusion at your school?
- We are a kosher campus, and last year, we eliminated our food service program. If all goes to plan, we will roll out improved dining services this spring and subsidize employee meal costs. We also hope to introduce a snack cart, where employees can connect between classes.
- This year we are focusing on compassion — approaching one another with patience and understanding that everyone is handling their own challenges, on- and off-campus. To help meet that goal, we’re offering faculty and staff one-on-one mindfulness sessions with our school counselor.
- In the past, we may have shown our appreciation to staff with on-site massages or a catered lunch, but that just hasn’t been possible in the age of COVID. Instead, we’ve been integrating sessions around mindfulness and self-care into professional development training days, with a specific focus on handling difficult conversations in the classroom.
- We’ve decided to offer unlimited life coaching sessions to faculty and staff to help navigate challenging situations and work towards professional goals. The school is actively trying to shift some elements of our culture over the next several years, so we’re excited to see how coaching will help people in our community build relationships and get support.
- Our school is likewise looking into coaching programs that specifically focus on emotional health and wellbeing. With the service we’re considering, the coaches could direct employees to resources included in their EAP if they need additional help or guidance.