I have a question for you … to what extent does your life as a school leader reflect the statement below?
“School Leadership is a 60+ hour a week job. If you are to survive and succeed, it is a role that requires all of you, even if that means sacrificing any hope of a work-life balance and having to devote less time to other aspects of your life.”
I ask this question, because day after day, I see many school leaders living their life from this premise and I see the way in which it damages their sense of agency and ability to change their work life balance for the better.
Living life as a school leader from this premise overlooks the deep interconnection that exists between our emotional and professional lives.
What needs to be understood is that when we neglect important needs and areas of our lives in favour of our role, there is almost always a cost to our behaviour, health, passion and happiness. Crucially, this will almost always end up affecting our professional lives and the way we lead our schools.
Tragically, many school leaders do not challenge this premise and have learned to normalise self-sacrificial ways of being. The disillusionment, ill-health and disconnection with their original passion and purpose are not seen as warning signs that things need to change, but become accepted as a normal part of the job.
This has to change. We need vital, connected, passionate, healthy and happy school leaders, who are alert to the signs of an unhealthy work-life balance and are prepared to do something about it.
If you are a school leader and you are wondering where to start there are 4 signs that I believe every school leader needs to be aware of, if they are to begin to create a greater sense of harmony between their personal and professional lives.
1. Work dominates your mind outside of School
You ruminate about your school at the dinner table. You think about it in bed or even find yourself dreaming, or more accurately having nightmares about it. When talking to friends, you lose track of the conversation because you’re worrying about something that’s going on at school.
During a work day, it’s great to be this focused. At home, your focus should be on the other aspects of life.
Thinking about the job all the time takes its toll on your mental health, and can eventually lead to burn out. Our brains need ‘down time’ and if rest isn’t forthcoming our cognitive abilities suffer.
Smartphones tend to exacerbate the problem by putting our work constantly in our hands and in our pockets. You can open emails anywhere, whilst you watch the TV at home, during a family meal or on your way to school.
Some leaders have even told me that they wake up in the middle of the night to respond to emails.
This way of being means that it becomes near impossible to separate work and home life; your home ceases to be a home but another office.
Many also find that they become less present for those they care about and less able to fully embrace and enjoy the other parts of their life.
2. You can’t remember the last time you enjoyed yourself
It’s OK to occasionally work beyond what is expected of you. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. However, I’ve seen some Leaders become so consumed with their role that they forget to devote real time to enjoying the things they love the most and spending quality time with those who bring them joy.
This is damaging as we need these opportunities to renew us at the end of a working day or week to sustain ourselves.
When these parts of our life are put on the back burner and work becomes the default, we can begin to feel increasingly unfulfilled in our roles and our lives. We can also begin to resent our roles and the responsibilities that come with them.
If you’re concerned your balance might not be in check, think back over the last few months and reflect on when was the last time you did something you loved or spent some quality time with friends or family.
Consider how many times you cancelled, rearranged or put off things you wanted to do because you felt your role took priority?
If you’re surprised how long it has been, or worse, you can’t even remember the last time, then this could be a clear sign that changes are needed.
3. Your Body and/or Mind are Beginning to Struggle
Whether it’s a reoccurring headache, tension in your neck/shoulders, persistent fatigue or something more serious, our bodies and minds have many ways of telling us they need a break and some attention.
These are all clear warning signs that we are overworking, overthinking and that this is beginning to take its toll.
Yet often, rather than heeding these warning signs and tackling these issues at the root of the problem, we ignore these signs and simply use a range of coping mechanisms to plaster over the cracks.
One of the most common (and damaging) signs of a poor work-life balance is a disturbed sleep pattern.
When our minds are constantly at work, we can find that we have increasing difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, as our brains are either still over-active or frazzled from the day’s activity.
This symptom of a work-life imbalance is also one of the most damaging to our leaders and their performance as a lack of sleep can also cause much less activity in both frontal and parietal lobes.
When these parts of the brain become less active our memory, problem solving capabilities and ability to concentrate can be significantly impaired.
To compound matters, a lack of sleep can also wear down our immune system and leave us more susceptible to experiencing serious physical ailments and mental health issues.
4. You begin to have a shorter patience with others
If you find yourself getting short with staff, friends or family members once in a while that’s normal, but take note if it starts to happen daily or multiple times a day as this could be a good indication you’re work-life balance is out of kilter.
When we have our work-life balance right, we find that we are able to handle problems that arise more easily.
However, the more you work, and the less you sleep, the less opportunity you have for genuinely relaxing. As a direct consequence, you can find yourself becoming more tightly strung and your emotions increasingly frayed. You can find that you fly off the handle more often and hold on to resentments that much longer.
When this begins to happen with a greater level of frequency, it can start to harm or alter the relationships with those you love and those you lead.
It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in the role of being a Head, to the point that your private life simply drops off the schedule as you work on autopilot, just getting through the day. But this is dangerous, not only for your health and your relationships, but for your school life too.
As when we begin to neglect our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, our ability to meet the needs of others can also be affected and we can find leadership begins to feel (if not become) unsustainable.
Particularly, given the challenges of school leadership today, I believe it is therefore vital our leaders devote equal time and care into their personal lives and their professional lives, and establish a work-life balance that works for them and allows them to continue to lead and inspire in their schools.
That’s why I’ve decided to make our Complete Guide to Work-Life Balance for School Leaders free to download to support Headteachers and senior leaders to find greater balance in their roles, as they seek to deliver the best possible outcomes for our children…