We live in an increasingly complex world. Schools need the most effective leaders to take responsibility for educating the next generation. Yet, data from around the world shows we are facing a spiralling crisis of stress and poor wellbeing among school leaders.
This is impacting their job performance, causing many to burnout and creating a global headteacher and principal shortage. Unfortunately, despite growing interest in school wellbeing, improving the wellbeing of leaders remains a low priority for policymakers, schools, and leaders themselves. In my new book, School Leaders Matter: Preventing burnout, managing stress, and improving wellbeing, I set out the case for prioritising the wellbeing of school leaders and provide a blueprint to prevent leader burnout.
Why does school leader wellbeing matter?
It is not hard to make the case that school leader wellbeing matters. Studies highlight the crucial role that quality leadership plays in securing a positive environment for learning and determining student outcomes. To optimise the quality of that leadership, schools need healthy and resilient leaders who can create the conditions needed to maximise school effectiveness.
Research clearly shows that healthy leaders have more energy, are more productive and make better decisions. They are also more resilient, more reliable and have lower rates of absenteeism, presenteeism (coming to work when ill) and turnover. Schools with higher rates of leader retention have lower staff turnover, more committed teams, and higher student achievement.
“The negative emotions of highly stressed leaders are also highly contagious.”
Highly stressed leaders not only perform less well but are more likely to have uncivil interactions with staff, affecting relationships and eroding trust. Their negative emotions are also highly contagious, undermining the quality of the workplace culture and impacting school effectiveness. So, what can be done to reduce leader stress and burnout, and what does this mean for schools and for leaders themselves?
The burnout continuum
The Burnout Continuum is a useful construct when considering the stress of school leaders. All employees lie on this continuum, somewhere between Engagement at one end and Burnout at the other. In between, is Overextended, Detached, or Ineffective. During their career, school leaders move up and down the continuum, as they experience varying job demands and their capacity to cope fluctuates.
“We all lie on a contiuum somewhere between Engagement at one end and Burnout at the other.”
While there are steps that leaders can take to help manage those demands and reduce the impact of stress on their bodies, the research is clear that burnout is primarily caused by contextual, workplace factors. These factors have been identified as imbalances in six areas of worklife – community, workload, control, rewards, fairness, and values. The most effective way to ensure school leaders remain at the Engaged end of the continuum is to improve their working conditions and the onus for this lies with governments and schools.
Strategic school-based approaches vs self-care
To optimise the wellbeing of its leaders, schools need to take a strategic approach to evaluate their workplace experience and address issues through interventions designed to fit the context. I have developed The School Leader Wellbeing Framework, outlined in my book, to support schools in this process, but sadly only the most innovative schools are interested in this approach at present.
While I sincerely hope this will change and that my book will play a part in revolutionising how schools think about their leaders, we also need to focus on ways in which leaders can use research-based strategies to manage their own stress more effectively.
“We must begin to view self-care as a desirable leadership attribute.”
The phrase self-care is much maligned but most effective stress management involves taking better care of oneself. For many school leaders this can be challenging. Leaders commonly focus on the needs of others or see self-care as a sign of weakness. Yet self-care is about ensuring our basic human needs are met. To optimise the wellbeing of school leaders, we must begin to view self-care as a desirable leadership attribute and an investment in sustained leadership that benefits the whole school community.
The role of rest and recovery
Self-care begins with rest and recovery, biological processes that allow our bodies and minds to repair. Rest comes primarily through sleep, yet studies show that sleep is a major problem for school leaders, with over half reporting sleep deficiency. While the importance of sleep is often devalued, 45 per cent of adults report that lack of sleep makes their stress worse, while high stress levels also affect sleep quality and duration.
Taking steps to improve sleep may be the single most effective way of managing stress. In my book, I look more closely at peer-reviewed and scientifically endorsed approaches to treat sleep disorders.
The importance of switching off
In addition to sleep, Work Recovery plays a crucial role in returning us to a normal state of health, mind, or strength, during non-work time, and is instrumental in helping school leaders to manage stress. Researchers have identified four experiences – psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery experiences and control – that are essential to effective Work Recovery. In my book, I discuss each of these and suggest strategies leaders can implement to improve their Work Recovery in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays.
“Studies show that psychological detachment can be learned.”
Psychological detachment, which involves disengaging from work during non-work time, is the most important Work Recovery experience. Long working hours, blurred home-work boundaries, and work-related rumination, can make it difficult for school leaders to switch off, significantly affecting their ability to recover.
Studies show that psychological detachment can be learned, however, and interventions have been identified that support this process. These include creating plans at the end of the working day to describe where, when, and how work will be completed, implementing rituals to demarcate work from non-work time and restricting the use of technology that connects leaders to the workplace.
School leader burnout is real and preventable
The main message from my book is that school leader burnout is both real and preventable. While there are steps that leaders can take to manage their stress, policymakers and schools must start being more proactive. It is time for a significant shift in thinking to create real and lasting change that will ultimately make schools more effective.