Colleagues and their contribution to wellbeing and psychological health in the workplace

Recently I was asked to speak about Counselling and Psychotherapy in the workplace and although I have done some training in both I am not specifically trained as a Counsellor or Psychotherapist and so declined. However, as a Chartered  Psychologist I certainly have things to say about ways in which people in the work place can care for their own well-being and psychological health, especially in their interactions with colleagues and to do so I’m going to draw upon some ideas from my PhD research, which happened between 1998 and 2011. 

It was a long and fairly tortuous process , very largely because I decided to explore what had been called the “secret garden” of teachers’ working lives* , i.e. their relationships and arrangements for work with colleagues and accessing the 58 teachers who were generous enough to talk openly with me was extremely challenging. Not surprisingly, I had to use my own workplace contacts and at no point did anyone in a managerial or leadership role in either schools or Local Authority help. This took time and persistence but I believe the material I derived from the study is all the more authentic and useful because of it and has a much wider applicability to workplaces of every kind, not just schools.

The main and over-riding finding was that the subject of workplace interactions was a complex, important, varied and problematic one. On the one hand education literature and educational rhetoric and policy is riddled with the idea that professional collaboration and collegiality is essential for successful teaching and teachers themselves talked about its importance and the positive difference it could make to their general wellbeing and their effectiveness as teachers but on the other hand I was told that it was not necessarily essential and it was not something about which school managers, Local Authorities or government could mandate. The reasons for these latter views were as varied as the 58 different professionals I interviewed.

As might be expected, different themes did seem to reflect the individuals’ situations with the system and the level of decision-making, status and power they held. Whilst those in management positions emphasised the benefits of collaborative practice, classroom-based teachers stressed the need for personal choice and also a certain cynicism about forced colleague relationship. It was also grass roots-level teachers who made the point that a working connection with a colleague did not necessarily constitute relationship and in fact a number said they made a point of keeping personal relationships out of their workplace. In addition there were some strong views about managers modelling and ensuring a school ethos that facilitated “good professional connections”.

Whilst I do not disagree with the ‘secret garden’ metaphor I would extend it and include a complex maze, which can only be used after dark. Why would anyone even want to go in let alone explore such a place? Because if you can find your way to the centre I truly believe you will find the treasure needed for emotional wellbeing and psychological health in the workplace; the gold of professional belonging, collaboration and colleague support.

*David H. Hargreaves (1972) ‘Interpersonal Relations in Education’ London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kairen Cullen ‘An Exploratory Study of Teachers’ Views About the Involvement of Other Teachers in their Work’ (2011) Institute of Education: University of London.

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