Why do 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 Headteacher 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 Headteacher 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.
When I look back on my years as a Headteacher and now with the work that I do with School Leaders, I now realise just how easy it is for School Leaders to accept tiredness, emotional overload and irritability as the norm.  
For me, the realisation came about, after a particularly challenging encounter with a parent. I had become so used to numbing out my emotions and wearing my ‘super-head’ cloak, that when my emotions did finally catch up with me, I was at a loss as to what to do.
All I could do was sit in my car and cry and cry and cry! It was only when this happened and after some deep soul searching, that I realised why I had got to this place and what had been missing from my life as a Head teacher …  Support!
I’m not talking about the type of support Headteachers get from school advisors, Governors or fellow colleagues. It was a different type of support that I realised had been missing.
I needed support that was confidential and non-judgemental. I needed a space where just for a while, I could take off my cloak and be me. A space where I could show my vulnerabilities and be supported to make sense of my own emotions in relation to the demands of the role.
Sadly, some 15 years later, there is still a woeful lack of ‘proper’ support for those who are at the helm. As a result, there are many Heads for whom emotional overload is a still hallmark of the role.
It’s for this reason, why I now offer FREE “Coaching for the Soul” Calls to provide School Leaders with a safe, non-judgemental space to  talk through the challenges of the role.
This call offers a confidential space where leaders can:
–  Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
–  Receive support and encouragement in their current situation
–  Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
–  Gain clarity around their thoughts and plan a way forward

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


Leave a Reply