I was recently asked to write an article for the Guardian to offer my advice to School Leaders about what can be done to tackle the causes of burn-out and reduce some of the stress of the role. Below are the tips that I shared with them…
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The stress that headteachers are under continues to be reported – with the numbers leaving the profession a growing concern. For many, headship is a role that’s beginning to feel untenable.
This echoes what I often hear from headteachers in my role as school leadership coach. The headteachers I speak to feel overwhelmed by shrinking budgets, the teacher recruitment crisis and the high-pressure inspection system. So what steps can they take to prevent burnout?
1. Don’t ignore stress and anxiety
In his book Leading from the Edge, ex primary head James Hilton recounts how he fooled himself into believing that all was well, even though his body was showing signs of stress through increasingly frequent back pains and migraines.
It’s easy to normalise symptoms of stress, which can also include problems sleeping, loss of appetite and mood swings. You tell yourself it’s part of the job. This is what I did when I was headteacher and I see many others doing the same thing. But these kinds of problems can be a physiological response to stress and anxiety, and should be taken seriously.
2. Build a support system
Leading organisational psychologists Arnold Bakker and Patrícia Costa argue in their research paper on chronic burnout for tailored changes in work conditions to better support employees with high levels of burnout.
Putting in place your own system of support is important. Coaching, counselling and mentoring can all help, as they provide a regular space and time to talk through the challenges you are facing.
Taking control of the type of conversations you have throughout the working day can also be useful. For many headteachers, their days are often a series of difficult conversations, which can lead to heightened states of nervousness, self-doubt and anxiety.
Bakker and Costa found that the emotional impact of difficult conversations can minimised by actively building in time during the day for at least one positive face-to-face conversation. This could be constructive dialogue with a student, parent or teacher.
3. Make time for reflection
People sometimes equate being busy with being effective. But all to often this approach leads to mindless engagement with the role, overload and burnout.
Professors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, international experts in leadership and emotional intelligence, found that to combat the negative impact of stress, leaders must take time to reflect. They call this the renewal cycle. The headteachers I know who have tried this say it improves their decision-making and their wellbeing.
Try to schedule regular times to pause and reflect. These moments can help you to feel balanced and more mindful of who you are, and allow you to consider how you’re engaging with different roles.
4. Remember to delegate
To take this time out for reflection, and still have time to complete your jobs for the day, you need to be able to delegate well. Look ahead, identify the pinch points in the school term, and choose the staff you want to develop who will stand in for you when you’re away from the building or unavailable.
By investing thought in this, you’ll be less likely to worry about what may or may not be happening in your absence. Instead, you can trust in whoever is holding the fort and put your energy into completing tasks that need your undivided attention.
5. Re-think your open-door policy
When starting out in the role, many heads adopt an open-door policy. At the drop of a hat, they’ll attend to any request made of them from parents, staff and children. While such an approach is good for building relationships, there is a risk of headteachers losing control of their own emotional needs and work priorities. You need structure and boundaries.
In my experience, many headteachers struggle with the notion of putting their emotional needs first. They seem to think that attending to these needs means ignoring the needs of others. It doesn’t. When heads attend to their emotions, they’re less likely to be weighed down or driven unconsciously by them, so are more effective.
6. Learn from difficult experiences
Emotionally healthy headteachers are more likely to create emotionally healthy schools. Psychologist and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman and other Harvard researchers tell us that when leaders increase their capacity to understand and deal with their emotions, performance increases.
Heads I have worked with have developed this capacity when they have engaged with questions that help them to develop a deeper understanding of their emotions and their impact. If you have struggled with a specific situation, try asking yourself some questions afterwards, such as:
– What feelings accompanied this situation?
– How did you deal with them?
– What lessons have you learned about the relationship between your emotions and performance as a school leader?
Using this technique has helped some of the headteachers I work with to prioritise the meeting of their own emotional needs and improved how they have then responded to the needs of others.
What many leaders have learnt but others are still yet to see is that investing in themselves and doing what is necessary to ensure their psychological and emotional needs are met is not selfish, but rather it’s vital for successful and sustainable leadership.
If our school leaders are determined to stay in the profession for the long-haul, they must begin to take charge of their well-being and develop generative and sustainable ways of leading which will support them in their complex and challenging roles.
That’s why on the 19th October 2017, we hosted Headteachers & School Leaders from across the country for a new type of School Leadership conference; an “Education for the Soul” Conference designed to help leaders to explore and discuss what matters most to them (their values, hopes and passion) and locate ways of leading that are aligned to who they are, their goals, their vision and above all, don’t require them to sacrifice their own well-being.
It is fair to say, the day was a very special one indeed, and for me personally, it was deeply humbling to see so many school leaders and education professionals who were prepared to:
– Take a risk
– Ask of themselves challenging questions
– Think about school leadership differently
– Go on a deeper learning journey with themselves and others
It was so wonderful to watch these individuals drop their leadership masks and come together, in service of one another and in service of shared hopes, dreams and ambitions for our children and our schools.
As a result, the conference became a place where discussions about the relationship between well-being and school leadership could be discussed openly and candidly, and real solutions could be found.
Above all, the day confirmed to me three vital key lessons that I’ve learnt from my time working with School Leaders….