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. If you would like to comment or read my original article on the Guardian website, please click here.
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.
Rising to the Challenges of Headship
From managing excessive workloads, the impact of budget cuts and high levels of personal accountability and public scrutiny – over the years, the role of Headship has always been fraught with challenges and pressures.
However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic back in March 2020, sadly we’ve seen the intense demands on our School Leaders grow yet further.
Not only have leaders had to rapidly adapt to quickly changing government advice and establish new practices and protocols for virtual learning and health and safety monitoring, they’ve also been expected to provide support to their communities and inspiring leadership throughout these difficult times.
Having to manage months of relentless challenge and crisis management (alongside the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic has taken on all of us) has proven to be extremely challenging even for the most experienced and resilient Heads.
And it is now perhaps no surprise that many School Leaders who are reporting feeling battle weary, beleaguered and burnt out. As a result, an NAHT poll back in November 2020 found that almost half of Headteachers plan to leave prematurely – and 70% say job satisfaction has fallen in the past year.
With this, in mind – I believe there’s never been a stronger case for the need to ensure that our School Leaders are properly supported; strategically, operationally and emotionally to ensure they not only survive in the headship role, but also thrive in their attempts to deliver the best outcomes for our children.
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 still, many Heads remain endemically under-supported, without spaces the need to off-load and encouragement they need as they manage the burden of the weight that they have been forced to carry.
Friends and family might offer a listening ear, but again it isn’t easy. Unless they have walked in your shoes, it can feel like no-one really fully understands what you are going through.
However, I know from my own experience as a Headteacher and now as an Executive coach that personalised support is vital, if leaders are to keep their hope alive and stay connected to their vision, passion and purpose.
That’s why I’m now offering free 1:1 Coaching calls to give senior leaders a chance to:
– Talk through and get support with the challenges they’re currently facing
– Reflect on events and the impact they’re having
– Gain clarity about their current situation and plan a way forward
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!