The media is filled almost every day with reports of increased stress and mental health issues that schools are facing in the wake of the current pandemic crisis. Most focus on concerns about the wellbeing of children and young people, while a smaller number seek to highlight the issues surrounding teacher stress. Very few pay attention to the increasing challenges of the school leader’s role and the impact that school leader burnout may have not just on schools but also on society.
For many parents, school leader wellbeing may seem a peripheral issue that does not concern them. The headteacher/principal often seems removed from the daily experience of their children in the classroom. However, research tells us that the success of schools depends upon effective and stable leadership at the principal level. The influence of the school head/principal on student outcomes is second in importance only to the quality of teacher instruction. Heads/principals set the direction and establish the culture of the school, influence the curriculum and teaching methods and crucially appoint, develop and appraise teaching staff. Studies from the USA show that when a principal leaves a school, there is a higher chance that teachers will resign too and that student outcomes will decline. A school with a long-serving head/principal is also more likely to successfully implement school improvement measures.
What parents should want, therefore, are schools with stable and effective leadership where the potential of their child can be maximised. To the contrary, we are currently witnessing a global crisis of recruitment and retention of school leaders as principals leave the profession in droves due to poor working conditions and overwhelming levels of stress. In a 2020 UK study by the National Association of Headteachers, 70% of headteachers said they were thinking of leaving the profession in the next 2-3 years. This should be of concern to parents.
Since 2013, I have been researching the link between leadership recruitment and retention issues and school leaders’ working conditions. It is clear that the highly challenging nature of school leadership is taking its toll on heads and principals around the world. Since the start of the pandemic, these challenges have become magnified. I am contacted daily by overwhelmed heads/principals who are struggling to cope and are considering resigning their posts in the not too distant future.
Recent Survey into Stress Levels
In October 2020, I conducted a study of school leaders worldwide on the demands of leading through the pandemic. 721 school leaders took part in a 37 question survey into their current wellbeing. 91% of leaders said their workload has increased since the start of the pandemic, while 90% felt work-related stress was higher. 74% reported their current stress levels as extremely high or very high, with 62% experiencing stressful events or situations on at least a daily basis. 70% said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020.
Causes of Current Stress
The most likely cause of current stress for school leaders is confusing and shifting guidance from the government. One respondent reported “it’s been very very frustrating with mixed messages from the government. It feels like I’m planning for something unknown, blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back!” Another said, “while schools operate the largest social gatherings legally allowed at the moment, we have been given next to no support from the government.”
Taking responsibility for keeping the school community safe and supporting the emotional needs of others emerged as consistent themes from the study. 90% of leaders said their work is more emotionally challenging than usual. 79% found work with parents to be more emotionally demanding than before the pandemic, while 75% said the same of their work with teachers and 62% of their work with students. One headteacher described “reassuring everyone about school being safe and supporting their emotional needs when I don’t feel safe myself.” Another said “I’m not a healthcare or safety expert. I’m just a human being with a family who loves working with children and teachers. It’s just exhausting and I worry so much that I might get it wrong.” Many leaders mentioned how anger with the current situation is being directed at them by staff, parents and media. One described feeling like a “punchbag for everyone’s anxieties.” Another referred to the “constant vitriol spouted in the direction of schools,” and how disheartening this is.
Support for School Leaders
Headteachers described feeling more lonely and isolated since the crisis began and were concerned about their own wellbeing. Only 33% of leaders reported getting enough practical support in school and, while 46% reported receiving sufficient emotional support, 23% said they are receiving no emotional support. 67% of leaders felt their stress levels were impacting negatively on their health. One asked “who is taking care of me at the top of the tree, while I am taking care of everyone else? Coping with the mental health needs of children, parents and staff has led to my own health significantly deteriorating.”
70% of respondents reported that stress was having a negative impact on their personal life. One head shared how she has been forced to “completely disregard the needs of my family and my own well-being for the benefit of others.”
While 44% of leaders reported success with healthy coping strategies like exercise, 48% admitted to using passive coping strategies like alcohol, food or drugs to help them get through and only 16% felt they were getting enough sleep.
While an end to the pandemic may finally be in sight, with the development of effective vaccines, it is likely to be many months before the world returns to normal. School leaders need more support and regular opportunities to recover if they are to sustain effective leadership until then. In the longer term, schools need to place more emphasis upon the wellbeing of their leaders if they are to avoid burning them out. It may be surprising to some that as many as 70% of leaders said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020. However, this represents only a 15% increase in respondents who reported the same in a similar study I conducted in 2015. COVID 19 is no doubt increasing the demands and stress levels experienced by school leaders but the problem will not disappear once the pandemic is over. Governments and boards of governors/trustees/directors need to start thinking of their school leader as a valuable asset that needs to be properly taken care of. Parents can play a role, not only by supporting their head/principal but by demanding that their needs are taken care of. After all the successful education of their child/ren depends upon the effectiveness of the leadership that their head/principal is able to offer and the quality of that leadership may currently be hanging by a thread.