Coaching & Leadership Development
October 11, 2017

Why do so many Headteachers suffer from Burn-out?

Why do so many Headteachers suffer from Burn-out?

Your role as a school leader requires an endless amount of energy; energy being what the Oxford English dictionary defines as;


The strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity”.


However, you know that from your own experience as a school leader, the definition should also include “sustained emotional activity.” When you are working in a school, engaging day-to-day with children and their families, teachers, support staff, governors and other adults, you know that in addition to expending great amounts of mental and physical energy, you expend equal if not more amounts of energy meeting the emotional needs of others.


As a result you end up carrying a huge emotional debt and become increasingly emotionally overdrawn, with no readily identifiable means for bringing your emotional account back into credit.


School development is also about emotional development. The ability to meet the emotional needs of others is central to the levels of effectiveness displayed by school leaders. The ability to do so is a requirement that increases during periods of stress, which let’s face it… is virtually all of the time when you are a school leader!


The problem is that as a school leader, you are not trained to understand how to respond to and meet other people’s emotional needs.  Let’s be honest we often have enough trouble understanding our own! Most of us are novices in the field of understanding human emotion, yet your role demands that you become expert at it.


The result is that you give without receiving. And even when the well runs dry, you attempt to become a miracle worker, by still trying to meet the needs of others, when you have absolutely nothing else left to give.


When we ‘burn out’, not only do we experience a mental and emotional exhaustion, but we also derive less satisfaction from our lives. Life begins to lose its meaning. Feelings of self-doubt creep in as do also harmful ways of meeting our unmet emotional needs.


Whether it is alcohol, food, smoking or some other external pacifier, we as human beings are adept at finding ways to squash the truth of what we are really feeling. In fact we have become so adept at it, that sometimes we are oblivious to the fact that our habits and addictions are dampening our ability to be in tune with our emotions, we become used to living ‘emotion-less’ lives.


This is way of being for school leaders is typified in the words of a Head Teacher that I once worked with who when reflecting on her habits before coaching said;

“For years, I had been doing what I do, not looking after myself; emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I had learnt to ignore things that had had a negative impact on me”


I know when I became a Headteacher, I did not expect this is what headship would be about. Raising standards, fostering good teaching and learning, holding staff to account, yes, but the internal struggle between living out one’s own values and dealing with my own and other’s emotional baggage, no, this was most definitely not what I thought I had signed up for.


Now I understand I was stuck; trapped in what I now understand to be what Richard Boyatzis and Annie Mckee, co-authors of  Resonant Leadership, call the “sacrifice syndrome.”


 “When leaders sacrifice too much for too long – and reap too little – they can become trapped in the Sacrifice Syndrome. Dissonance becomes the default”



When I look back on my years as a Head Teacher and now with the work that I do with school leaders, I realise just how easy it is for symptoms of the Sacrifice Syndrome to become the norm.  I had come to accept tiredness, emotional overload and irritability as the norm. Nothing that I either observed or saw amongst my peers contradicted this perception that I had of the role, everyone was just so good at grandstanding, that I believed that it was OK to put our own needs last.


I can recall countless moments when I gave and I gave and I gave: moments when I cried from the sheer exhaustion of giving all of the time, but never stopped long enough to question the relationship between my own inner emotional state and my outer performance as a leader.  I just kept on going, until one evening after a challenging encounter with a parent, the camel’s back finally broke. I was burnt-out.


On another day, at another time, when I wasn’t so tired, I may have found the inner resolve to stand my ground but something inside of me had cracked. Up until that moment I had been able to keep the full truth of what I had been feeling hidden from myself and others. I wrote in my diary one evening…


We may have got a good from OFSTED, but this hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference to how I am feeling inside. Everyone turns to me. I have to carry everyone and everything. Right now, I just feel that it’s all too much. I am tired of being tired. I am tired of giving every day. I am just exhausted! I love this school, I love my staff, I love the children but does leading have to be at such a great personal cost to myself?”



It dawned on me that I needed someone to talk to, someone who did not require anything of me, someone who would listen to me and not judge, someone who could create a space for me just to be myself, not Viv Grant the head teacher, but just me. So I turned to the counsellor who worked with some of the most vulnerable children in our school.


After that day, everything changed. By having this someone ‘neutral’ to talk to and someone who was skilled as a listener, I was able to gradually find my footing and plot a way out of the Sacrifice Syndrome.


What I came to understand from that point onwards was that amidst the growing emotional cost of leading, the complexity of the role and heightened pressure of being a school leader, if our Heads are to successfully navigate the challenges of the role and maintain consistently high levels of personal performance, they need support.

They need someone impartial who really understands the challenges of the role, with whom they can “drop the leadership mask” and talk openly and honestly about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings they are experiencing.

Without this support, Headteachers are left at the mercy of the sacrifice syndrome and the high risk of burn-out which comes with it. Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.

Yet although some time has now passed since I left Headship, still very few school leaders are afforded such vital support and left without anyone to turn to when they are in need of clarity, guidance, or even just some encouragement to keep going.

That’s why as part of my continued mission to support our school leaders, I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” calls to help ensure that no School Leader should have no-one to turn to, if they find themselves stuck in the sacrifice syndrome.

This Free 30 minute call will provide you with a confidential, safe space where you can:

– Talk through the challenges you’re currently facing in your role

– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help you overcome the issues you’re experiencing

– Explore what you want out of life as a School Leader

Book Your Call

Places are limited – so if you are determined to take charge of your own well-being, book today to avoid disappointment.


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