It can be calm at work?

I’ve recently learned that workplaces where wellbeing is centred, time for deep work is plentiful, and culture is co-created may not exist solely in my imagination, other leaders’ good intentions, and theoretical principles. The conditions for calm might actually be living and breathing somewhere in this universe.

Working in teaching and education leadership, it’s been all too straightforward to accept overwhelm, burnout and poor mental health as part of the job. It’s easy to assume that such effects are inevitable when responsibility for young people’s learning and development is at the heart of your role.

My working life began at 16 and I’ve held a variety of jobs in the two decades since:

  • Shop assistant in a card shop, in a sweet shop, in a bookshop, in a sports shop
  • Waitress in an Italian restaurant
  • Gallery attendant in a contemporary art gallery
  • Bookseller
  • Temporary administration assistant in a nursery
  • Customer Services Officer at a Further Education College
  • Lecturer in English
  • Learning and Development Manager
  • Head of Learning Design
  • and now, Curriculum Designer

Few of these jobs came with the perk of a calm place to work, even through the rose-tinted glasses with which it’s tempting to view the past. This is with the definite exception of the first bookshop when hardly a customer appeared and my days were mostly spent reading and studying. It could barely be described as a job at all. Some of these jobs swung wildly between calm and chaos, others had the chaos accelerator pressed firmly to the floor.

A few years ago, this rarity of calm in my working life led me to look inwards. It began with the question, ‘Is it me?’ In some ways, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ I’ve learned there are ways in which I can reduce my workload and foster improved wellbeing by:

  • Setting, communicating, and maintaining boundaries.
  • Managing my people-pleasing behaviours.
  • Replacing existing habits with new ones.
  • Knowing when to honour my introversion and when to push beyond it.
  • Increasing my awareness of common behaviours that prevent me from being at my best and adapting accordingly.

This agency to change my world has felt empowering, frequently exhausting, and most certainly ongoing.

I’ve also discovered that an answer to the question, ‘Is it me?’ is, ‘No, not always’. I’ve learned to appreciate that the burden for my wellbeing doesn’t rest entirely on my own shoulders. Nor can it be found in workplace ‘perks’ and wellness ‘initiatives’.

Narratives that predominantly associate wellbeing with self-care are a convenience to the organisations and systems that, intentionally or otherwise, cause harm, lack awareness of their impact, and refuse to change. Such an outlook forces individuals inwards to seek the calm in their lives that they crave. The answers they locate may well exist beyond their jobs (Friedman, 2022) and this is far from good news for workplaces, and professions such as teaching where retention is a significant challenge.

Diagnosis of the problem

So why can’t some workplaces create calm for colleagues? Could it be that:

  • Teachers don’t work in climates that prioritise trust, efficacy, collaboration, consistency, ‘effective professional development’, ‘continuous improvement’, and ‘high expectations for students’?
  • ‘The workday is being sliced into tiny, fleeting work moments by an onslaught of physical and virtual distractions’?
  • There is ‘an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost’, which ‘sets towering, unrealistic expectations’ that lead to increased stress?
  • Workplaces lack ‘inclusivity, creativity and trust’, with colleagues predominantly experiencing ‘overwhelm’ and the barriers created by power and ‘hierarchy’ instead?
  • A frenzied combination of some or all of the above?

(Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, 2018, p.1; Hunter, Ceesay and Drew-Jones, 2022; Papay and Kraft, 2017, p.24; Grissom et al., 2021, p.15; Kraft and Falken, 2020, p.33)

Workplace environments can either create chaos or calm. They can either support people to be at their best or constrain what’s possible. This can be particularly significant in teaching where there are close links between the environment within which a teacher operates, the work they’re able to do, and the impact they’re able to have on the young people they work with (Sylva et al., 2012; Kraft and Papay, 2014; Grissom et al., 2021).

I’m aware that no global diagnosis of the problem has been provided here. Each leader and organisation would need to look inwards to determine the specific jumble of chaos inflicted on their teams. Once a probable diagnosis has been made; an acceptance has been reached that ‘chaos should not be the natural state at work’ (Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, 2018, p.4); and a recognition that moving beyond individuals and towards the system is necessary (Hunter at al., 2022), then possible solutions can be sought.

The possibilities of collective pause

I’ve often felt the effects of a frantic pace of working life, my immediate inclination being to figure out how to slow down. I’m then trapped in a dilemma of how slow is too slow, when to choose slow, and how on earth to achieve it if fast is all I’ve ever known. Robert Poynton points out that slow or fast, it’s still a relentless movement forwards when in fact, a pause is what’s required. ‘In a pause you can question existing ways of acting, have new ideas… Without ever stopping to observe yourself, how can you explore what else you might do or who you might become’ (2019, p.15)? Whilst pauses can be powerful on an individual level, I wonder how transformational they might be at scale.

Fried and Heinemeier Hansson describe how, at Basecamp, they structure their work in 6 week cycles to enable some collective downtime: ‘we work on projects for six weeks at a time, then we take two weeks off from scheduled work to roam and decompress’ (2018, p.8). Mirroring my own experience of project work, Basecamp recognised that when they worked ‘on things for as long as they took’, they ‘saw how projects never seemed to end’ (2018, p.8). They experimented with the optimal cycle and finally located it at six weeks.

When I first read this, I immediately thought of the half-termly rhythm of teaching. Yet with further reflection, I recognised how these collective holidays weren’t collective pauses in the way that might shift the culture and experience of work for colleagues. Everyone would leave for and return from holiday collectively but nothing about the intervening period was collective and colleagues would inevitably return to the same chaotic culture that they left. This is a culture of surviving until the next interlude, rather than a rhythm of work that offers meaningful pauses.

In roles that consisted of project work, the opportunity to ‘roam and decompress’ is exactly what I’d been craving as one piece of work ended and another commenced. The dust of the flurry of work needed somewhere to settle, to be sifted through, and the gems to be rescued from what could simply be left behind. Instead, it often felt as though the heavy bags of debris were simply carried into the next piece of work, and potential insights never saw the light in the breathless rush to divert attention to the next project.

I once worked with a colleague who designed computer games and such a rhythm of working towards a deadline and then having a period of collective pause across the organisation where creative ideas, learning and other forms of collaboration could take place was familiar to them. I once visited a science-based technology company where a regular percentage of time was provided for colleagues to take time out from their regular projects to experiment, create, play and see what emerged. In teaching contexts, collective pause is often created when colleagues are brought together for professional development but can such tightly defined and structured time provide the calm for insights to emerge and practise to be questioned or do teachers leave with yet more things to add to their burgeoning to-do lists? I suspect some settings have got this sense of calm more right than others.

Setting meaningful goals

For the entirety of my career in education, I have been aware of the goals and targets everyone has been working towards, frequently taking the form of KPIs. As a leader, I often detested writing them for my area of responsibility. The process behind their creation was rarely evidence-informed, instead consisting of looking at last year’s target, and regardless of whether it was met or not, adding some unreasonable amount and going again. For brand new targets, we might have taken a rudimentary look at the wider sector, other contexts, existing benchmarks, and then we invented from there. Goals that felt entirely qualitative were often turned into a figure, just so that it became easier to measure it with an ‘on track’ or ‘not’ each time it was reviewed.

These figures were dictating what activities were prioritised, invested in and monitored. It became increasingly clear to me that all too often we weren’t ‘measuring what we value’, we were simply ‘measuring what we can easily measure’ and valuing that instead (Biesta, 2009, p.35).

As Fried and Heinemeier Hansson describe, nearly all goals ‘are artificial targets set for the sake of setting targets. These made-up numbers then function as a source of unnecessary stress until they’re either achieved or abandoned. And when that happens, you’re supposed to pick new ones and start stressing again’ (p.22). This way of working certainly doesn’t read like a recipe for considered calm.

I do appreciate that establishing and communicating a set of common goals can be important for developing trust and a shared direction within an organisation (Robinson and Gray, 2019). They can create all-important alignment and coherence in an organisation’s culture but I wonder why these cannot simply remain broader, more qualitative goals that, whilst ‘harder to quantify’ (Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, 2018, p.27), can calmly guide shared learning and activity, rather than ignite a chaotic rush to achieve that which is not important anyway.

Prioritising attention

Over the years, my attention has often felt fragmented at work, whether by endless meetings, online chat tools, or concurrent pieces of work requiring attention. My fractured days often meant that work needed to be squeezed into the out of hours parts of the week. My weeks felt chaotic and I resented the need to plan lessons, mark essays or simply get work done because the rest of my valuable time had been frittered away in other ways. Whilst I learned, over the years, to set personal boundaries that reduced distraction, systemic changes to create ‘stretches of uninterrupted time’ for everyone might have had an even greater impact and made it feel less as though I was fighting a losing battle (Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, p.55). Some of these systemic changes might include:

  • Colleagues scheduling ‘office hours’ where they advertise at what points in the week they will be free to answer questions, offer help, and share their expertise with others (p.55). At all other times, seen as unavailable and their time and attention respected.
  • Hiding calendars online so that arranging a meeting with someone is ‘a tedious, direct negotiation, not an easy, automated convenience’. At Basecamp, ‘you have to make your case. You can’t just reach into someone’s calendar, find an open slot, and plant your flag’ (p.60).
  • Prioritising discussions of ‘to-don’ts’ as much as to-dos’ (p.48).
  • Explicitly communicating when instant chat tools should be used – for an emergency where ensuring alignment across teams quickly is necessary (p.131), for social interactions during the day – and making it clear where topics might need more ‘time, traction, and separation from the rest of the chatter’ (p.132).
  • Relieving people from a culture where an immediate response is expected and other people’s sense of urgency dictates another’s day (p.66).
  • Committing to projects only ever getting ‘smaller over time, not larger’. Providing a project team with the autonomy to control the project; sorting, sifting and deciding ‘what’s worth keeping and what can wait’ (p.135)
  • Creating equalising spaces where everyone can have their voice heard, policies are co-created to ensure they work for everyone, and asking the question often, ‘what is the cost of not getting things right for everyone?’ (Hunter at al., 2022)
  • Establishing and maintaining a professional environment, where the supportive conditions mean teachers can continually improve, achieve a sense of success, and experience high levels of trust (Kraft and Papay, 2014; Kraft and Falken, 2020).

A few months ago, I would have told you that instant chat messages where every part of someone’s work is shared and colleagues can be messaged with ease at any time, was the number one tool every organisation needed. It’s only in experiencing something different that I realise how much of my headspace is released by not having to snooze notifications, manage others’ expectations of an immediate reply, or announce my every move and activity.

Solutions such as those listed above might require us to challenge our own assumptions, and to counter well-established narratives about ease and convenience, if we truly seek calm at work.

Leaders as role models

Many of the leaders I’ve worked for over the years may have spoken about wellbeing and balance but have not necessarily modelled calm in their actions. Their promotions into the hierarchy of leadership have been as a result of their dedication and unwavering commitment; these examples of ‘self-sacrifice’ (Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, 2018, p.77) providing the benchmark for everyone else’s aspiration. The rare leaders I’ve encountered who have modelled something entirely different were met with my scepticism but have gradually chipped away at these internalised narratives of ‘hero leadership’ to reveal the possibilities of calm leadership.

I’ve been unlucky enough to work in several organisations where the leaders at the top of the hierarchy have voiced their opinions, ideas and perspectives and seen them prioritised immediately above all else that may have already been on the table. Each of these pebbles has created ripples so great that there’s a distinct lack of clarity about what’s important except ‘everything’, and chaos ensues (Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, 2018, p.86).

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with leaders who have refrained from voicing their views in meetings until everyone else has spoken, acknowledging the power dynamics at play. They have ensured that shared decision-making takes place about the work that is important and what can wait (Hunter et al., 2022). They have created the conditions that protect everyone from everything designed to distract.

It can be calm at work?

This blog presents a variety of possibilities for calm but not the exact recipe. There’s much more for me to learn and discover but I’m beginning to believe that there might be ways in which:

  • Hours at work can have weight to them, rather than slipping ‘away with nothing to show’ (p.47).
  • Time can be collectively protected for devoted rather than partial attention (p.41).
  • Everyone can become the primary owner of their time.
  • Leaders can create and model the conditions for calm.

I’m hopeful that it’s not too late to create a calmer system in education so that people stay because of it rather than despite it.

References

Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), pp.33-46. Available at: https://singteach.nie.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Biesta-2009_Good-Education-In-An-Age-Of-Measurement.pdf (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Fried, J. and Heinemeier Hansson, D. (2018) It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. London: Harper Collins.

Friedman, A. (2022) What Comes After Ambition? Elle. Available at: https://www.elle.com/life-love/opinions-features/a40835443/women-rejecting-traditional-ambition-2022/ (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Grissom, J. A., Egalite, A.J. and Lindsay, C.A. (2021) How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research. The Wallace Foundation. Available at: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/principalsynthesis (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Hunter, J., Ceesay, O., Drew-Jones, S. (2022) How To Co-Create Workplace Cultures. 64 Million Artists. 21 September 2022.

Kraft, M.A. and Papay, J.P. (2014) Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience. Educational Effectiveness and Policy Analysis, 36 (4), p.476-500. Available at: https://scholar.harvard.edu/mkraft/publications/can-professional-environments-schools-promote-teacher-development-explaining (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Kraft , M.A. and Falken, G.T. (2020) Why School Climate Matters for Teachers and Students. National Association of State Boards of Education. Available at: https://nasbe.nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/2020/05/Kraft-Falken_May-2020-Standard.pdf (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Papay, J. P. and Kraft, M. K. (2017) ‘Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, and Succeed’. In: Teaching in Context: How Social Aspects of School and School Systems Shape Teachers’ Development & Effectiveness. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press. pp. 15-35. Available at: https://scholar.harvard.edu/mkraft/publications/developing-workplaces-where-teachers-stay-improve-and-succeed (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

Poynton, R. (2019) Do/Pause/ You are not a to do list. The Do Book Company.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., Taggart, B., Toth, K., Smees, R., Draghici, D., Mayo, A. and Welcomme, W. (2012) Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education 3-14 Project (EPPSE 3-14) Final Report from the Key Stage 3 Phase: Influences on Students’ Development From age 11 -14. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184087/DFE-RR202.pdf (Accessed: 26 September 2022).

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

Leave a Reply

10 things I learned from my first #WomenEd event

Image available from here This week marked International Women’s Day. The theme was #beboldforchange I took this to heart and pushed myself to be (even more) bold all week: Writing my first feminist blog – Why we still need feminism Delivering the opening speech at development day on the theme