Why we need to talk about school leader’s wellbeing
The summer holidays may feel like a gasp of air for many school leaders who have experienced increasing pressures within their roles over the last few years. There has certainly been a lot of buzz around wellbeing in education, but do we really know enough about how school leaders are bolstered to carry the load?
Here are the top 3 increased pressures that leaders are facing:
- Heightened Responsibility – Headteachers carry the full burden of responsibility for delivering the whole school vision, whilst ensuring the people in their school communities are well and engaged.
- High Accountability and Public Scrutiny – With the growing focus on results, OFSTED and closing the attainment gap, there is an increased pressure on school leaders.
- Isolation – Headteachers spend the majority of their time on their own, there are fewer opportunities to discuss struggle or distress when leaders are avoiding crossing professional boundaries.
Every change of circumstance, direction and policy has contributed to their workload, the 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index, highlights the levels of stress and distress that leaders are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
Key findings about leader’s wellbeing
- 84% of this group report that they are stressed (up from 75% in 2017, the first year of the Index).
- 66% of senior leaders work in excess of 51 hours a week.
- 54% of senior leaders turned up for work despite feeling unwell.
- 63% of leaders have considered leaving the profession in the past two years because of pressures on their mental health and wellbeing
- 80% citing the volume of workload as the main reason for thinking about leaving their position.
School staff have witnessed increasing levels of pupil anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. The Gov.Uk Covid-19 Mental Health and Wellbeing Surveillance Report highlights that evidence suggests that some children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing has been substantially impacted during the pandemic. Between March and June 2020, a period when schools were closed to most pupils, symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were found to have significantly increased in children and young people aged between 7.5 and 12 years old compared to immediately before the pandemic. Data from February and March 2021 shows that rates of probable mental disorder in children and young people have increased between 2017 and 2021. This could indicate an upward trend, however we must recognise that many young people have broadly coped well with the pandemic.
With the added pressure of catch-up curriculum, it’s no wonder staff wellbeing is at an all-time low. This is the perfect storm for increasing the negative impact on senior leader’s emotional health. The risk is, if nothing changes, we could see a huge increase in leaders leaving the profession and a shortfall of professionals to step into these vital roles.
It’s vital that we explore the true impact of school leadership on people, by hearing the voice of professionals in these roles. My interview transcript with a primary school headteacher (Anonymous Headteacher) clearly shows the current pressures for school leaders.
KH – “How are you?”
AH– “I am not often asked that question, thank you for asking. I’m doing ok, I’ve got through the last year and I’m just about standing.”
KH – “What has been your greatest challenge and how has this impacted your wellbeing?”
AH – “Trying to hold everything together and come into work with a smile even though at times, I’ve struggled to face the day ahead.”
KH – “What are your sources of stress?”
AH – “Accountability and Ofsted banging on the door, shielding and protecting staff and managing parental expectations. On reflection this keeps me awake at night.”
KH – “Relationships is a word we hear used a lot when it comes to helping students do well in school, but how does the relationships between staff affect the school culture?”
AH – “Positive relationships between staff certainly aid my wellbeing, negative relationships are the source of my stress and are harmful for my school community.”
KH – “How do you look after yourself?”
AH – “I understand the importance of self-care but find it increasingly hard to protect time to prioritise my wellbeing with an ever-increasing workload. I have made one positive change; I now plan for more time working from home. It was hard to let go of the reins and relinquish the guilt of not being physically present in school, but I can see this is not only having a positive impact on my leadership capacity and my emotional health but also providing an opportunity for my leadership team to develop and excel.”
KH – “What would be the magic remedy that would help you flourish in your role?”
AH – “A focus for my school this year is resilience, I have noticed that although many people have overcome the adversity of the pandemic. I have a small cohort of people who are still understandably struggling. These are the people that I often find in my office sharing their thoughts on how their role is not good for their wellbeing. I am certainly seeing more of a push back from the everyday requirements and expectations within educators’ roles. I try my best to support all staff wellbeing but recognise that I am a human being with needs too. As a headteacher I come to work with my professional mask and often, this can have a negative impact on my homelife.”
KH – “Who is your emotional backstop?”
AH – “My wife would say she is; however, I recognise the importance of being present with my family, therefore I have invested in coaching and this has been a lifeline for me, without a safe space to offload, who knows what the outcome would be, I dread to think.”
KH – “Can you offer any advice for anyone who may be considering leaving the profession or who is struggling right now.”
AH – “You have to do what’s right for you, but I would revisit ‘your why’ and take time out to walk around your school and connect with the people in your community. I chose teaching as a career because I wanted to make a difference and we must remember that we are.”
KH – “Can you recommend one resources that school leaders can benefit from using.”
AH- “I would highly recommend Mind Mental Health in the Workplace”
Sources of positive wellbeing
It is my belief that contextual wellbeing makes all the difference to school leaders' wellbeing, that sense of community spirit and coming together for the greater good. The involvement of others within the school team lightens the load.
An example of a consistent boundary would be for school leaders to abide by effective work/home life boundaries. Recognising that leaders should leave work at work; removing their professional mask in order to recharge and spend quality time with their families and loved ones in order to support their wellbeing.
Taking time to think and reflect will no doubt provide opportunities for both professional and personal development and helps develop self-awareness and leadership skills. Taking
time out from the job to be you, explore what provides you with headspace and balance through fun activities. This could involve a variety of activities, physical exercise, and interests.
Try to map out your trigger points for stress and anxiety, the knowing can aid the remedy.
Know who your “energy providers” are and identify your “energy sappers” we often refer to this as radiators and drains. You can find helpful resources through Insight Discovery, NAHT and The Education Support Partnership.
Most importantly identify who your support networks are. A perfect example of this is demonstrated through the work that the Kent Association for Headteacher are doing with over 300 Headteachers within Kent County Council.
I always say to the school leaders I work with, remember “you are a human being, not a human doing, and you are doing your very best.”
You can get in touch with Kelly here:
About Kelly Hannaghan
Kelly puts wellbeing at the heart of education. She is an award-winning motivational speaker and school improvement advisor, published author and founder of 'Family Matters' empowerment programme. Kelly has worked systemically with some of the most challenging communities by supporting families, with the strategies to thrive from adversities. She leads school development processes creating outstanding outcomes and awards for many organisations. She is a trailblazer within the Wellbeing Lead Network for supporting pastoral teams. Recognised by the DfE, NCB, The Anna Freud Centre and The Education Support Partnership as a lead influencer of mental health and wellbeing in education.