Why ‘Wellbeing’ mustn’t be just another buzzword

Lockdown has highlighted the importance of our mental health like never before. As we emerge back into normality, Olivia Dixon, Head of PSHE and Pastoral School Consultant Teacher at Nottingham Girls’ High School, says it’s time being emotionally well becomes a long-term commitment for us all.

“Emotional wellbeing is a clear indicator of academic achievement and success in later life”

Wellbeing has been on our radar for many years. We hear about it in the news, we recognise it in the media and in popular culture and we all understand that it translates to ‘being emotionally well’. The problem for many, however, is that this notion of being emotionally well becomes a gold standard for existence – it is something that we all aspire to but, perhaps, something that most of us don’t really know how to achieve. More crucially, there is a misconception that being emotionally well means being happy all the time or pretending to be happy even when things are difficult.

And things have been really difficult recently. The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been very challenging for our mental health. Many students, some with cancelled exams, but all isolated at home, divorced from their school routine and unable to see their friends, have found it especially hard. Alongside our move to Guided Home Learning, to ensure academic work continues, the wellbeing of our students has remained front and centre.

As we return to a ‘new normal’, the wellbeing of pupils – and the wellbeing of their teachers – remains crucial. But this is also a chance to ‘re-frame’ the term ‘wellbeing’ once and for all. It’s so important that we don’t see the term as just another buzzword – a fad with a short shelf life. Instead, wellbeing needs to be ingrained in such a way that it is part of the ethos and culture of every school. Rather than aiming for an unattainable gold standard or adhering to the misinformed belief that I must be happy all of the time, even when things are really difficult – we should instead recognise that being emotionally well is the ability to recognise that we are complex emotional beings – and that our mood states will fluctuate but we know what we can do help us ‘bounce back’ from low moods. It might be a cliché but we need to understand that it is okay not to be okay.

For example, if we ditch useless worries, re-frame our perception of our ‘failures’ and normalise our complex emotional states, we can begin to really understand what it means to be emotionally well. We might have failed a driving test or been unsuccessful in an interview but this doesn’t make us failures. Yes, we might be worried about the big, important, career-defining presentation that we have to give next week but, realistically, how much of this is within the scope of our control?

So where do we start?

There is no ‘quick fix’ to embedding a culture of emotional literacy in a school. It requires a cross-curricular, collaborative approach involving both staff and pupils. At the GDST, we have been working with the Positive Schools Programme to help prioritise wellbeing and during lockdown we have been running Positive courses online, alongside webinars to support our staff, students and parents.

This initiative, embedded into [the culture of ] each of our 25 schools, aims to promote and maintain the psychological health, well-being and resilience of the whole school community. The programme uses a range of different tools, and is supported by App-based technology, to encourage self-reflection. This ‘toolkit’ supports us in navigating the complex world of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, helping us to thrive and flourish. The key message here is that we do not need to aspire to a utopian, unattainable state of happiness but, instead, we are able to manage our emotions in a way that allows us to be the ‘best versions of ourselves’.

The phrase ‘living my best life’ has recently found itself firmly rooted in popular culture but, really, this throwaway, all-too-Instagrammable remark actually encompasses the very spirit of wellbeing. Living my best life shouldn’t mean bottomless brunches and baby goat yoga, however: it should mean living here, now, in the moment – recognising successes and learning from difficulties – understanding that it’s okay to be sad sometimes and that our emotions are complex – and recognising how valuable my wellbeing – being well – really is.

So, no, ‘wellbeing’ isn’t just another buzzword (we can’t let it become another buzzword) – it is fundamental to our successes and to our ability to thrive and, yes, it is most definitely here to stay.