How do staff create a positive work-life balance in a residential setting where the expectation is 24/7 availability?

By Katy Tinman. Katy is one of the first cohort on our MA in Leadership of School Mental Health & Wellbeing. This blog discusses her dissertation research that she did as part of the course and was supported with by the Minds Ahead and Leeds Beckett University Team.

After 8 years working in residential care with the added pressure of a global pandemic my work-life balance (WLB) was at an all time low. I was halfway through my MA in Leadership of School Mental Health and Wellbeing and strongly believed that the negative impacts of a lack of WLB on residential staff was an area crying out for research. 

It quickly became apparent that I was not alone. All of my residential colleagues were feeling more strain than ever before and even those members of staff who lived off site were struggling to balance their work commitments with responsibilities and hobbies in ‘the outside world’. 

I was acutely aware of the issues faced by residential care staff trying to obtain a positive WLB and was keen to offer advice to boarding school leaders on how improvements could be made. 

It was here that my dissertation was born. My research connected to me on a personal level and was conducted as part of a movement to solve issues myself and my colleagues constantly faced.

I already knew that greater acknowledgement of the increasing pressures of demanding work culture in the UK, described by the Mental Health Foundation (2021) as ‘perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population’ was essential. 

I began by asking a group of residential staff and an equal number of non-residential staff to complete an online questionnaire related to WLB and job satisfaction. The online questionnaire consisted of both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods through the use of standardised and open-ended response options. 

The data collected was also synthesised with the literature review I had conducted previously, as well as interpreted in relation to a theoretical lens in order to offer useful summaries and recommendations for future research.

Why is work-life balance (WLB) important?

WLB has been defined as satisfaction in all life domains (Kaliannan et al., 2016) resulting in the absence of conflict. Gozzo and Dickson (1996) suggested that negligence in one or more of our anchor points (emotional, spiritual, physical, imaginative and intellectual energies) can jeopardize the strength of the whole and have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing and productivity. 

The literature review I conducted identified that employees who experience WLB are more likely to feel satisfied in their job role resulting in positive outcomes for employees and employers alike.

With greater WLB among employees, organisations would benefit indirectly as well-being increases, work stress decreases and attitude to work is improved (Bell et al., 2012)

This is in comparison to poor WLB, which leads to reduced productivity of workers at an organisational level, and higher levels of ill mental health and psychological distress at an individual level (Kotera et al., 2020).

These were all indicators I was observing among my residential boarding colleagues, something had to change. 

How do residential staff differ from non-residential staff?

An initial overview of the data suggested that WLB was an issue faced by all staff who responded to the online questionnaire. However, this was particularly the case for residential staff members whose inability to separate work and life was much more evident. 

The separation of work and life creates unique challenges for residence life professionals (Rankin and Gulley, 2018)

Residential staff are a very interesting population to explore as the service they provide creates a much greater overlap of the home and work realms. The nature of the work of a residential member of staff challenges their ability to differentiate between their personal and professional identities. 

The expectations placed on employees in this culture of work can sometimes push residence life professionals to combine their personal and work lives in unhealthy or unfulfilling ways, often resulting in high rates of burnout and staff turnover, and equally low job satisfaction (Rankin and Gulley, 2018). Patterns I had noted in numerous schools throughout my time in boarding.

Residential colleagues all noted that their ability to attain a sustainable WLB in practice was significantly hindered by their experiences in a long-hours culture. It was clear from the data that residential members of staff were experiencing an almost constant flow of push back from work stressors and a feeling of continually being ‘on duty’ which led to a major breakdown in work and home boundaries.

5 factors which negatively influence WLB for residential staff
  1. Long working hours and lack of ‘down time’ or time off. Residential staff noted an average working day of 16+ waking hours with additional overnight duty over six days of the week – this takes a huge mental and physical toll. Kotera et al. (2020) indicated that mental health risk factors were increased when working schedules and workload were excessive and inflexible.
  2. Lack of sleep or exercise. Likely to lead to impaired performance, increased incidents of accidents, burnout and other health issues. Respondents noted finding themselves in sleep debt with the inability to catch up on sleep during their limited time off, resulting in consistent impaired performance and poor mental wellbeing. With regard to exercise, respondents simply didn’t have the time. This is despite it being medically proven that regular exercise can lower your risk of depression by 30% (NHS, 2021).
  3. Excessive email traffic and volume of administrative tasks. The DfE’s (2018) Exploring Teacher Workload report suggested strategies for becoming more disciplined with regards to emails, such as adopting policies that stop emails being sent after certain times, perhaps by using delivery delays and being mindful of other staff members when sending work-related emails out of work hours.
  4. Lack of boundary setting resulting in major pressure points. There was a shared understanding throughout responses that there were high expectations regarding staff time, and a common theme within responses was their experience of significant conflict with management when attempting to manage boundary implementation.
  5. Little to no focus on staff mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, despite many managers encouraging staff to take time off or set boundaries, this is not something they do themselves. By failing to model the desired behaviours and continuing to send late night emails or call staff during dedicated time off, managers are creating an environment with added workplace stress and making it difficult for staff to report issues related to work stress, mental ill-health or poor WLB.
What can school leaders do? Short-term and long-term goals

‘Employers who embrace family-friendly policies, such as flexible working and enhanced parental leave and pay policies, are likely to see greater employee loyalty, commitment and motivation; a reduction in staff turnover and recruitment costs; lower absenteeism; and increased productivity.’

In comparison, organisations who continue to employ a long-hours culture and are persistent in this approach have much lower levels of WLB and consequently staff satisfaction. Here is what I suggest:

  • Set targets to reduce working hours 
  • Ensure accountability systems within schools through up-to-date job descriptions, regular consultations and exit interviews that are conducted correctly
  • Provide staff with a breakdown of directed time 
  • Offer equality monitoring across the board
  • Acknowledge the links between individual staff wellbeing, workplace culture and organisational policy decision. A lack of formal policy needs to be tackled at all levels to see targeted change 
  • Implementation, improvement and change in residential/boarding specific policy
  • Recognise the importance of co-workers and allow for more focus on reinforcing co-worker relationships to increase loyalty and a sense of belonging.
  • Intentionally create opportunities to be away from the school campus – something noted in the data by several staff members as a method they already employ in an attempt to separate work and play.
  • Appreciate the important role played by the leadership team in reducing issues surrounding WLB through the choices they make, the lifestyles they model and the expectations they place on their employees
  • The reduction of menial administrative tasks could allow staff members to complete more work they view as valuable, resulting in a beneficial effect on a person’s wellbeing and feelings of fulfilment and purpose. 
Recommendations for all schools, particularly in the wake of the pandemic

First of all, a partnership approach between employers and employees in which WLB processes and policies are reviewed collectively is essential criteria for developing a successful program of work. 

Furthermore, a shared understanding from the staff team and the Senior Leadership Team, of the combined responsibility to create a balanced focussed work environment and a health positive school culture will directly impact practice in the future. 

There are strong links between positive relationships with management and colleagues and high levels of job satisfaction – something which could be improved when staff teams work collaboratively and acknowledge that power dynamics between individual employees and organisations, largely influence the likelihood of achieving positive WLB. 

Secondly, focus should also be on long-term programmes and changes in policy related to increased organisational efficiency. This would be far more beneficial than attention being given to short-term staff retention practices or occasional and inconsistent chunks of ‘extra time off’, as noted in responses from the research.  

Finally, I would suggest schools sign up to The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter (DfE, 2021) which has been created to highlight the importance of staff wellbeing in the education sector. It is a tool that can be used by schools to publicly commit to their own wellbeing strategies and is essential for improving staff morale, job satisfaction, staff retention and overall productivity. 

Moreover, the wellbeing charter links with Ofsted’s inspection handbook (Ofsted, 2021) and every school’s legal requirement to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its employees. The wellbeing charter encourages actively measuring staff wellbeing and work overload and offers resources to help in this area.

Future research

Throughout completion of my dissertation, it became apparent that few pieces of research gave the spotlight to residential work roles. What I found was that the data I collected, whilst very useful and insightful, was very broad and only lightly touched on many themes rather than allowing richer data in one particular area. Further study within a residential context, with a greater sample group, is required to offer more data and to expand on what is already known regarding WLB. 

One specific area of focus which may bring about positive change in the future is sleep in relation to residential work. Given that most residential care workers are responsible for safety-critical tasks, such as medication administration, and the researcher is aware of the potential consequences of workplace fatigue on performance, further investigation and learning in this area has the potential to enable health and safety advances in such a demanding industry. 

Furthermore, considering the influence of mediators and moderators of WLB and wellbeing would be beneficial. For example, personality and spirituality will affect individual values in relation to ‘positive’ WLB and paying attention to these dispositional variables will allow researchers to determine if personality traits influence relationships between work and life domains. Investigation to better understand the relationships between these variables would allow managers valuable insight into which interventions will work most effectively.

In short, determining what a positive WLB looks like is difficult as it is individual to each person and their needs and is consistent with a person’s life values. What is known is that, whilst WLB and wellbeing are both subjective, they are also both measurable. There are wellbeing and WLB indicators that can and should be measured within all educational facilities in order to see constructive and beneficial change. 

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Katy Tinman

The Children's Society: Service Manager - Mental Health in Schools (Newcastle).

Masters in Leadership of School Mental Health and Wellbeing

It’s time to empower education professionals to support the mental health needs of the whole school community. School leaders taking our qualification develop the confidence and skills to effectively support mental health needs of pupils and educators.


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