• Alison Burton

Staying sane in crazy times: how school leaders can protect their health

Lonely leadership

Being a leader in many settings, but especially schools, is a lonely role, whilst stats on post-retirement life expectancy for headteachers make for depressing reading. Add a global pandemic - one that directly threatens lives of children, staff, families and whole communities as well as impacting on gaps in education and social inequality - into the headship responsibility cocktail and it’s no wonder that many school leaders are currently feeling a little frayed around the edges. So how can commitment to high pressure roles be navigated in ways that don’t compromise our health or mean that we neglect other priorities?

  • Boundaries

  • Organisation

  • Trust

  • Relationships

  • Stress-detection

1) Boundaries can be quite tricky for many of the sensitive people-pleasers who find themselves leading schools, yet these are absolutely key to wellbeing. Effective delegation and being able to say no are vital to any leader’s health, as well as crucial for staff retention and development. Limiting engagement with work matters to specific times of the week can be difficult, but will go a long way towards enhancing your wellbeing. For the committed and conscientious, this can feel like neglect of duties, but all educators soon learn that the end of their to-do list is about as achievable as reaching a rainbow’s pot of gold. Ring-fencing time for a communications detox and informing others of your reduced availability will lead to immediate benefits. Once boundaries have been clarified, it’s time to make concrete and non-negotiable plans for enjoyment and rest, whether that’s to spend a day with family, binge Netflix or go sky-diving. It can be particularly nourishing to revisit a forgotten hobby from the past – whatever you choose to do, do so knowing that in looking after yourself, you’ll be of greater service to others.

2) Good organisation provides a sense of control over the variables, the many unknowns that often derail our plans. Most successful educators are very well-organised, but, there’s a fine line between having systems in place to manage tasks, and becoming so inflexible that the slightest change leads to meltdown. Taking time to notice habits and behaviours is key. If you’re not organised, find apps such as Elisi, systems and people to support you. If you’re highly organised, start by flexing some simple routines. As you switch things up, you’ll likely realise that you have more choices than you’d appreciated: instantly empowering. For example, recognising that Sunday evening working casts a cloud over the whole weekend and leads to insomnia before the week has even begun, provides a clear rationale for rescheduling an outmoded behaviour that may have become a longstanding habit. Without implementing effective systems for coordinating multiple demands, leaders are galloping headlong along the path to detrimental experiences like imposter syndrome and more seriously, burnout.

3) Even if you’re confident that you're comfortably the most capable person in an organisation, you must learn to place trust in others to avoid harming your own health. Taking on tasks that could be delegated and heading into micro-management territory may be well-intentioned, but is harmful to an organisation. Instead of feeling eternally grateful that you completed a task they could have done, staff will also observe this lack of trust and may feel undervalued, or worse still, learn helplessness and expect you to do it next time too! Completing these tasks invariably diverts energy from steering an organisation towards key objectives, compounding medium term stress when targets aren't met. Build confidence in yourself and others’ confidence in you by explaining what you are entrusting them to do and why it matters. Stand back and watch them execute these tasks less well than you may have done and then step in to help them to learn. More conflict-averse leaders can make these uncomfortable shifts in delegatory behaviour slowly, by exploring calm but direct communication with less confrontational members of staff and seeing how it feels to eliminate some complexity from communications. Build a simple and honest approach gradually, observing the beneficial impact of increased levels of trust on performance, wellbeing and teamwork.

4) Most senior managers have arrived in the role because they are strong in the relationships domain. However, a large workload and conflicting roles can challenge maintenance of the best of relationships. Effective communication is vital, more so in times of uncertainty such as these. Let others know what’s going on so that they don’t harass you for information! Identifying those you can rely on as discreet sounding boards and building a network for the sharing of ideas (online and in-person) will make the role feel less lonely and improve your confidence in decision-making. Don’t forget to involve family and friends so that they can make allowances for the significant stresses inherent in the job, rather than compound them by pointing out your failings at home.

5) Stress-detection is a vital skill. We all have our own personalised markers that indicate that our stress containers are becoming too full and that we may be heading for burnout. Are you in the fridge or wine rack more often than usual, biting your partner’s head off or snapping at the children? Are your social media posts becoming more negative, judgmental or attention-seeking? Have you experienced physiological changes such as sleep problems or chest pains but overlooked these in the midst of appeasing a tricky parent or chasing support for a child with complex needs? Intricate feedback loops exist between mind and body, but educators are especially prone to functioning primarily in the cognitive domain. Only when you’ve trained your attention can you can tap into your body’s subtle early warning signals to interrupt potential problems. Mastering this simple skill can significantly enhance quality of life, workplace performance and ultimately, longevity.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, please either get in touch or contact The Samaritans, for helpful confidential advice.

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