Leading Through the Pandemic: Is School Leader Loneliness Increasing Under COVID?

My article The Loneliness of the International School Leader from 2018, is by far my most read and commented upon post, striking a chord with school leaders around the world. Since the publication of Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?, I have been contacted by many wanting to share their own current experiences of isolation and desperation or express concern for leaders they know who are operating with very little support. In Is a Sense of Over-responsibility Harming School Leaders? I refer to the need for leaders to relinquish control and trust those around them to carry some of the burden, but the truth is that for some leaders this is not an option. Despite challenges on an unprecedented scale, many school leaders are leading alone, facing overwhelming stress and isolation with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Who Experiences Loneliness?

Leadership isolation is a commonly recurring theme in the literature on school leader wellbeing. Loneliness results from inadequate external support, the absence of a trustworthy peer group to confide in and insufficient time to connect with others. For international school leaders, this experience may be compounded by the lack of personal and professional support systems that leaders are able to rely upon in their home countries.

My own research shows that those most at risk are leaders new to their role, especially those who have moved to a new school/city/country and particularly those who have moved without family. Also at high risk are leaders of smaller schools who are operating without a senior leadership peer group and those in locations that lack a wider leadership network. Finally, leaders who lack hobbies or interests outside of work are more vulnerable to loneliness than those who have a focus for their social connections. Of course, membership of a large senior leadership team does not guarantee protection from loneliness. Toxic relationships in the workplace may leave leaders more isolated than if they were working alone and can bring with them a whole range of other stresses and strains. Even in situations where senior colleagues are on good terms, it takes a strong and trusting team to create an environment where leaders can be vulnerable about their fears, share their anxieties and seek support from each other.

Isolation During COVID

Isolation can crush school leaders during the best of times. The weight of responsibility for the effectiveness of a school and wellbeing of a whole community can be heavy to bear alone. Since the COVID crisis began, however, the burden is even harder to shoulder for many, as they make daily, fast-paced decisions that may have serious consequences for staff and student safety, or business operations, while working a 16-plus hour day. Working from home scenarios are also placing many more leaders in situations of potential isolation as they operate at a distance from colleagues and miss out on the regular social interactions that daily school life brings. In the last few weeks, many leaders have reached out to tell me their stories of isolation and struggle. I suspect this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

How Do School Leaders Overcome Loneliness?

So what can be done to support those individuals who struggle alone and what can they do for themselves? It is important to understand that we are hardwired to feel less sociable and more likely to shut down when we are under extreme stress as we move to a fight or flight response. It is not easy to overcome our natural instincts to maintain a sharp focus on the cause of a perceived threat and exclude our other needs. Taking steps towards addressing isolation may, therefore, prove challenging. In Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader I identify the starting point as recognising we are lonely, understanding its potential consequences and acknowledging the need to address it. Research shows the devastating impact of loneliness on long-term physical and mental health. In the short term it also makes leaders less effective in their roles, by impacting sleep and their ability to think clearly, problem solve and communicate well.

Once we have acknowledged the need for change, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to reduce loneliness.

1. Make the Most of Existing Social Connections

How often do we make the time to reach out to family and friends at home? Just 15 minutes spent on a Zoom call touching base with those who know us best and love us most can have a startling impact on our wellbeing, kickstarting our happy hormones. It is easy to feel that we do not currently have time for maintaining these connections and give them a low priority or fall foul of our stress response by preferring to remain closed off to social interaction. However, we should view contact with our nearest and dearest as essential to our mental and physical health in the same way as we might view exercise and a balanced diet.

If you have a close relationship with a school leader, then check in with them on a regular basis and persevere even when they tell you they are too busy. During the lockdown in the UK, my brother took to video-calling me each week to catch up and seek and offer reassurance. Those short calls were precious moments of sanity and support, which I came to value enormously and believe made a real difference to both of us.

2. Create Allies Among Those You Lead

If you lack senior leadership colleagues or relations with them are not good, then seek succour from elsewhere in the school. Being honest about your vulnerabilities with those you lead can help you to build stronger relationships with staff and will create a more collaborative environment where everyone feels empowered and supported. A problem shared is a problem halved and there is no need to carry the burden alone.

If you have concerns about a school leader, reach out to them and offer support or suggest ways in which their burden may be shared. Despite having a strong network of leadership colleagues both inside and outside school, I know what a difference it made to me when staff (and parents) reached out to ask me how I am and offer support.

3. Make Hobbies and Interests a Priority

Hobbies and interests may seem a low priority at the moment, but it is actually more important than ever that you allow yourself to have interests outside of work, especially if these allow you to connect with others. When stress places us in a fight or flight response, we feel less creative or open to new experiences, so we need to view these as essential to our wellbeing and be deliberate in ensuring that we pursue interests outside of school, if only for an hour a week. During the first period of working from home in Hong Kong, earlier this year, I made a jacket, which I worked on late each evening when the emails and WhatsApps abated. In order to seek support in this endeavour, I joined a number of sewing groups on Facebook and took great pleasure each evening, not only sewing but reaching out to more experienced sewers to ask for advice. I found myself eagerly anticipating this time arriving each day and became aware of the joy it was bringing and the good it was doing.

4. Build Support Networks with Other School Leaders

Reaching out to colleagues outside of your own school is a key way to receive support and gain perspective. In my research, networking with senior colleagues in other schools, meeting socially to swap stories, empathise and offer advice was a real lifeline for many participants. In both Germany and Hong Kong, we had strong principals’ networks, which were not only a valuable source of information but helped keep me sane during tough times. It is reassuring to reach out to others who share a similar experience and realise that you are not alone in your struggle. Reaching out to former colleagues through Zoom is also a great way to stay connected to others.

If you can offer support to others then let them know. I try to make sure that I am available to former colleagues around the world and feel privileged when they reach out to me for support.

5. Professional Coaching

In my opinion, all senior leaders should be provided with a professional coach. While this practice is becoming more widespread, it is still rare. Professional coaches can provide a buffer against hard times for any leader, no matter how experienced, and can provide a valuable safety net to those who are most isolated. Whilst expensive, the benefits far outweigh the costs and the provision of regular executive coaching should become part of every school leader’s contract.  I have coached many educators and leaders and have seen the benefits first hand. I have also sought the support of a counsellor on work-related matters on two occasions, once at the very start of my leadership career and once last year when I was diagnosed with burnout. It is hard to express the value of finding space to discuss your struggles with a professional and gaining new perspective.

If you do not have a professional coach then ask if one can be provided or the costs reimbursed. If you are a Head of School or Principal, make contact with an executive coaching agency and negotiate a package for yourself and your senior colleagues.

6. Rest and Recover

Lack of rest and time to recover from the daily onslaught of demands and challenges renders us more likely to be lonely and isolated. Studies show that lack of sleep causes social withdrawal, making people feel more lonely and less social around other people. Researchers also found that well-rested people observing sleep-deprived individuals rated them as less socially desirable. Rest, relaxation and sleep may seem low priority if you are desperately struggling to keep a head above water in the current crisis but you cannot expect to combat feelings of isolation, or be effective in your role if you are not well-rested. Leaders need relaxation, sleep and recovery time. This means taking time out during the working day to recover, taking a break on during evenings and weekends and taking proper holidays where you can completely reboot.

If you notice that your senior colleagues are becoming exhausted and are reluctant to take breaks, gently encourage them to take better care of themselves. I once witnessed one of my middle leaders arriving home from school at 8pm. When I asked her about this, it became apparent that it was a regular occurrence and upon closer examination, I became aware that she was not taking care of herself and was close to burnout. It was hard to persuade her to work less and focus on her own needs as she was too close to the situation to realise its potential seriousness. With the help of another colleague we were able to support her and bring her back to a better balance.

Loneliness is one of greatest public health challenges of our time, with damage to long-term health as significant as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For many school leaders, isolation is real and may be impacting their ability to lead effectively as well as having long-term health consequences. Even for those not leading alone, stress can precipitate loneliness as stress hormones shutdown our natural social mechanisms. The isolation that school leaders experience should never be minimised or accepted as just being part of the job, especially during the current crisis, where the challenges of leading alone, or feeling alone, may more easily overwhelm people as so much is expected of them. It is possible to overcome loneliness but it requires a determined effort. Social connection should be viewed as a basic human need, vital to our short and long term health. There is no easy route out of loneliness but even small steps taken to interact with others and feel connected can make a huge difference.

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