Develop an evidence-based employee wellbeing program

What if you listened to your staff and students about their reality, and then wrote a school-wide wellness framework and curriculum that was specific to their needs? At Elizabeth Indie School in South Australia, a focused approach to addressing the complex wellbeing needs of students resulted in a bold redesign of staff wellbeing strategies and processes. In today’s Q&A, Assistant Principal Kim Brady and Principal Scott Dirix explain how they approached staff wellbeing, what research they used in their approach, and what impact it had.

Can you tell us something about your school and its context?

Indie School Elizabeth is a small independent school for young people aged 15-19 who are at risk of education due to dropping out of school. We are in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, in one of the lowest socio-economic regions in Australia. Our students have diverse social, emotional, and behavioral needs, and many have diagnosed special needs.

Why did you decide to write a wellness program in the first place?

One of the strategies we use as leaders is deep listening. We consciously spend time with our employees and students and listen to their ideas and what is important to them. Our “deep listening” with the students has drawn our attention to a number of issues that could be summarized under the banner of “wellbeing”. Mental health was critically low, community health resources were ineffective, emotional education was poor, many of our young people were using maladaptive coping and risk behaviors, and eating and living habits were unhealthy. Responding to these needs quickly became our most important task.

Your approach to improving student wellbeing started with looking at staff wellbeing first. How did you do that? How did it look in practice?

During the holidays we read something (Evidence-based approaches in positive education: Implementation of a strategic framework for well-being in schools, 2015), where we learned, among other things, that the outcome of our student welfare initiatives depends directly on the welfare of the staff. That’s why we’ve planned several professional learning days to explore employee and student wellbeing initiatives.

We examined why we do our work, got to know the PERMA framework (Seligman, 2011), reflected on our results from the VIA character strengths assessment and carried out studies on evidence-based strategies. As leaders, we suggested that our school would be “The Good Workplace”: a workplace that gives meaning, that is characterized by a moral vision that is put into practice on a daily basis and that puts people in jobs that allow them enable them to do what they do best ”(Peterson, 2006).

We have introduced our employee self-care plans that use our top 5 strengths of character to develop strategies to place ourselves in the flow channel at work. Having ourselves and our team in the flow channel (a state in which a person feels strong, in easy control, and at the peak of their abilities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is the path to what Seligman calls “blossoming”., an increased well-being and performance. Our employee self-care plans also describe our personal signs of stress and the support we need from colleagues when stress occurs. We list self-care strategies in physical, psychological, relationship and workplace areas and then share these in a team with suggestions and mutual support.

The very collegial manner in which our team ran the self care plan process and the feedback we were given made us rethink our professional learning plans. We built on the standard learning plan template (goals, strategies, links to Australian professional standards for teachers, feedback from performance reviews) and asked employees to consider growth areas from our jointly developed list of employee values. We have also added a “Things I want to learn” section to the “Things I need to learn” section, which asks employees what they could bring into the workflow through learning. Then we organized an “Ideas for Growth” forum in which we made suggestions to each other about potential for improvement.

What research did you use for this work? How did it affect your approach?

Professor Kitty te Riele’s concept of a “pedagogy of listening” (Putting the puzzle together, 2014) underpins our philosophy of deep listening. Simpson, Peterson & Smiths Critical program components for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (2010) influences our daily work, but in the context of well-being reinforces our conviction that the focus must be on employees if an educational program is to be successful. We used Helen Timperleys Who is my class? to ensure that we focus directly on wrapping the wellness program around our students’ needs, and ultimately our framework is based on Martin Seligman’s PERMA model.

What have the results been so far? Did you notice any improvements?

One of the unexpected benefits of our work for the well-being of the employees was the establishment of an exceptionally high level of collegiality. We openly share our well-being and our professional learning plans, challenge and support each other equally. That generated trust and understanding in the team and welded us together. Due to this high level of collegiality, we have established a culture and the expectation of the “right conversation” in the team. This is reflected in our work with students where we expect them to be real with us and to approach issues authentically, which affects their overall wellbeing.

Our teachers tell us the following:

Since implementing the Wellbeing Focus, I have become more aware of my own energy and the impact it can have on the learning environment. This year I was present more consistently and evenly and can therefore help the students to regulate their emotions.

I have noticed that our students are now more open and honest with us.

It was amazing to be able to get into a work environment that gets wellbeing right. I’ve seen students open up realizing that they are genuinely cared for and valued.

Do you have any advice for other schools looking to improve staff wellbeing in their own context? Did you learn any lessons along the way that you would like to share?

Wellbeing in the workplace begins with people knowing what their job is and how to do it well. One of the best things we did early on was working with staff to create active role descriptions. This and the opportunity for regular, specific feedback on the performance of their roles form the basis for the well-being of employees.

Open dialogue and a high degree of collegiality are both unexpected advantages and an essential part of the success of our feel-good philosophy. The ability to have “real conversations” and receive feedback in all directions between employees and executives is key. For the students, “real talk” has strengthened the culture of our school. It’s not uncommon for students to say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing this here!’ Mark with a cross. or: “Are you regulated? You have to take a break. ‘ Our students have become guardians of our culture and guardians of mutual (and our) well-being.

Resist the urge to implement prepackaged feel-good programs. Although these can be used to educate or improve a school program, we have found that it makes more sense to “listen deeply” to properly understand student needs and then write a bespoke program that will take care of the students instead of expecting students to wrap themselves around a pre-built program.

Invest in executive wellbeing. We know this is counter-intuitive for principals who are used to being focused on students and staff, but we started with a student-centered approach, went to a staff-based approach, put in everything we had and ended up exhausted. We started thinking about our own wellbeing too late at work, but once we developed and adhered to a leadership wellbeing framework, we found that we can lead with more energy and authenticity.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of the optimal experience. Harper & Row

Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2006). Strengths of Character in Organizations. Organizational Behavior Journal, 27(8), 1149-1154.

Seligman, MEP (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. Free press

Simpson, RL, Peterson, RL, & Smith, CR (2011). Critical Education Program Components for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Science, Policy, and Practice. Curative and special education,32(3), 230-242.

te Riele, K. (2014) Putting the Puzzle Together: Flexible Learning Programs in Australia: Final Report. Victoria Institute for Education, Diversity and Lifelong Learning.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H. & Fung, I. (2007). Professional Teacher Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Extension. Ministry of Education.

White, M., & Murray, S. (Eds.). (2015). Evidence-based approaches in positive education: Implementation of a strategic framework for wellbeing in schools. Jumper.

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