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.

4. 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.

Leading Through the Pandemic-Is a Sense of Over-responsibility Harming School Leaders?

In my doctoral research “International Schools as Emotional Arenas: Facing the Leadership Challenges in a German Context” (2017) an emerging theme that went largely unexplored was the heightened sense of responsibility or “over-responsibility” that some school leaders feel. In considering how school leaders may alleviate the overwhelming stress that many of them are experiencing at the moment, I find myself returning to this theme with a wish to explore it further.

In my previous article Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders? I referred to the unwillingness or inability of most boards of governors and many heads to support the wellbeing of their senior teams, leaving leaders to take control of the situation themselves. Of course, leaders are only able to address what they have control over, which leads me to consider what can they control?

Before I delve into this, however, I want to consider the psychology of blame and whether blaming others for our stress may be impacting on our ability to cope and recover. Back in the 1990s, I was a personal injury lawyer for 10 years and acted for trade union members who were victims of accidents at work. It was well known in the legal profession that if a person sustained an injury due to an accident in the home, they were likely to recover more quickly than those who sustained the same injury in the workplace, where someone else was to blame. The psychology of blaming another after a motor vehicle accident has also been consistently found to be associated with poorer mental health and greater distress (Sullivan, Davidson, Garfinkel, Siriapaipant, & Scott, 2009). We might extrapolate from this that if we blame others for the causes of our stress, or for failing to support our wellbeing during stressful times, we may be less likely to cope and recover than if we reflect on our own role in the development of that stress and take responsibility for addressing our own needs.

So in considering the question of what school leaders can control in relation to their stress, I want to return to the issue of over-responsibility. I remember well an interview participant in my research saying, “I cannot switch off or relax at any time as I feel a huge sense of responsibility for everything that goes on in the primary school, no matter how small, regardless of whether I have control over it or not.” This resonated with me massively at the time, as my experience was similar. It was a theme echoed by others that I interviewed. When explored, it became apparent that this sense of over-responsibility was less tied to their accountability to the head of school or the board, although this was a factor, but instead a personality trait. Interviewees described a need to control everything in their lives, being considered a control freak by family members and friends. They also shared both the need for validation, associated with being great at their job, and the fear of the humiliation that failure would bring.

In the world of psychology, A Type personalities are known to be driven by their need to dominate and control. They are also more prone to stress-related illnesses such as Coronary Heart Disease and raised blood pressure. So is a sense of over-responsibility, caused by a need to control, causing harm to some school leaders and if so might they be able to mitigate this?

We need to accept that schools are highly complex organisations and that when we empower others and delegate roles and tasks to them, things will inevitably go wrong at times. During good times, failure is encouraged, as a sign of risk taking and openness to new ideas. However, during a global pandemic, everything is much more complex and the stakes are higher, which may lead some into a spiral of over-responsibility and control that could overwhelm and seriously harm them. So how do we address this?

For myself, entering into counselling following a diagnosis of a stress-related heart condition and occupational burnout, prompted me to explore the reasons for my need to control the environment around me, seek validation and fear failure. I have come to understand where in my past these tendencies developed and why. In my final year as a school leader, I began to accept that, while, as Lower School Principal, I was accountable for everything that happened in the Lower School, I could not control or be responsible for everything. Missing the last two weeks of the school year 2018-19, due to illness, was a good way to learn that the school did not revolve around me. We had the right people and systems in place to enable things to run smoothly during my absence. This increased my confidence in those around me and allowed me to let go of some things when I returned. As a result, when we were deep into the online learning phase and things became overwhelming on any particular day, I was able to shut off my phone for the evening, knowing that others would take up the slack and I encouraged them to do the same on their bad days. When working on campus was an option but not compulsory, I was able to continue working from home (being in a high risk category), knowing that my Vice Principals had things covered. When the weekly spreadsheet containing parent feedback was shared, I could rationalise the sometimes vitriolic comments, without a rising sense of panic, accepting that others were doing their best, and that while we would try to address all concerns, we could not meet the particular needs of every parent.

Being forced to monitor and mediate my daily stress, due to ill health, gave me a fresh perspective on my stress and the stress of others that may well not have happened if I had not fallen ill. I was able to reflect on what had brought me to that point, the part my sense of over-responsibility, need for validation and fear of failure played in that and the harm that blaming others may have caused me. I am grateful for that perspective and wonder how differently things may have worked out if I had learned this lesson earlier.

So what can we take from this? We cannot be responsible for everything and in truth no-one expects us to be, except for ourselves. Failure is a normal part of leadership, even during a major crisis, and we need to embrace it and learn from it. Most of us have great people around us who are more than willing and capable of supporting us in a reciprocal way. It is OK to briefly switch off sometimes and let others run the show while we recover. Blaming others for our stress may cause us more harm.

It is ironic that controlling our own stress alludes many control freaks. To control our stress we have to let go. Letting go is a process that will not happen overnight but if school leaders are to survive leading through COVID 19 then the control freaks among you need to find a way to begin.

Leading Through the Pandemic-Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?

A year ago, at the start of the 2019-20 school year, I took the decision to retire from work at the end of the year, at the age of 56. I feel no shame in admitting that 15 years as a senior leader in international schools has taken its toll on me. In May 2019, I suffered some health problems that were exacerbated by stress and I was also diagnosed with an occupational burnout, a condition now recognised by the World health Organisation as an industrial disease. I missed the end of the school year 2018-19 due to ill health but felt confident that after 9 weeks away from school, I would return ready and robust. I was wrong. A month into the new school year, I had a headache that would not go away and ongoing chest pain, despite taking medication to address this. I suffered a panic attack in my office and thought I was having a heart attack. It was very frightening both for me and my colleagues. It was at this point that I knew I had to retire from my role and take time to focus on my health and happiness. 

Of course in September 2019, none of us knew what was round the corner. In Hong Kong, schools were grappling with the complex problem solving that came with the pro-democracy protests taking place across the city. Senior leadership teams were having to decide whether and when to open or close on an almost daily basis as situations flared up unpredictably. For many weeks, we were tasked with keeping our staff and students safe and addressing their fears and anxieties. At the time, we had no idea that this was a dress rehearsal for the challenges of leading a school through a global pandemic. 

COVID 19 hit Hong Kong before most of the rest of the world. It came from nowhere, during the Chinese New year Holiday and we had no time to prepare before the government declared that we would not be returning to school after the break. Every school leader has their own story of how the last 9 months have unfolded and impacted on their community. The situation remains ongoing, with no idea of when things may return to normal. Leaders in many parts of the world are contending with another extended period of online learning, while colleagues elsewhere are trying to find ways to bring staff and students into school safely, to allow for face to face learning. None of this is easy and school leaders face enormous challenges on an unprecedented scale. 

I am contacted on almost a daily basis by former colleagues and friends around the world who want to share their struggles of leading schools through this difficult time. Many seek advice on how to deal with the complex situations they find themselves in, others just need to vent or talk things through. Many have not had a proper summer break and a chance to fully rest and recuperate from the challenges of the spring and early summer. There has been no slow start to this year, with a chance to gradually ease into things. Instead, complex problem solving began on Day 1 or for some even before the official end of the summer break. There has been no chance to capitalise on the sense of well being and increased energy levels normally experienced in August. By September, tanks are already running low for many.

One thing my former colleagues and friends agree on is that I chose the right time to retire. COVID 19 has made an already tough job even more challenging. The expectations placed upon school leaders have always been unrealistic but leaders attempt to navigate them with absolute dedication and commitment to their roles. Some thrive, most survive, some battered and bruised by the experience, others fall by the wayside defeated, like myself.  Leading during a highly unpredictable, global health and economic crisis, however, requires next level skills and superhuman levels of resilience if it is not to take a personal toll on the physical and mental health of our leaders, most of whom are quite prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of their students and staff.

If school leaders put the welfare of their community first then who is taking care of them? Who has the responsibility for ensuring that heads of school, principals, vice principals and other senior leaders do not burn out? Strictly speaking, boards of governors are responsible for the wellbeing of their heads and heads are responsible for the wellbeing of their team. I have spent the last 8 years researching, presenting and consulting in the field of school leader wellbeing and during this time I have learned that the majority of boards do not take their role in this regard seriously, while heads of school, many of whom are well intentioned, do not have time or energy to focus upon the emotional and physical needs of their team. 

So where does this leave our senior leaders? In an ideal world, heads of school will ensure opportunities are found to address the wellbeing issues of their team, establish new routines and provide time and resources such as leadership coaching, counselling or resilience training to help address growing needs. If this does not happen, then the best we can hope for is that senior leaders will themselves feel emboldened to raise the issue of their wellbeing and request that their needs are supported. Another option is for leadership teams to come together to identify the challenges they face and provide space for each other to discuss the toll it may be taking on them and provide support. This approach requires leaders to be honest about their vulnerabilities, however, something that does not come easily to many. Fear of humiliation prevents many from owning up to their frailties but failing to acknowledge and provide for the wellbeing needs of senior leaders from the start of the year will result in many leaders pouring from an empty cup as the crisis further develops. 

It is time for schools to accept that their leaders are their most precious resource during a crisis and a leader’s wellbeing should be managed carefully like any other major resource. If schools can provide access to external support resources or establish support networks within and between schools, they will weather the storm better than those who batten down the hatches and face the challenges alone. 

Being vulnerable and seeking and receiving support will enable leaders to emerge on the other side of this crisis stronger and more resilient than donning a red cape and charging into battle alone. 

The Epidemic of Workplace Stress Facing Women Educators

The current teacher strikes in New Zealand have brought into sharp relief the issues facing overworked and stressed educators around the world. On social media groups increasing stories are posted of, once committed, educators leaving the profession to seek alternative ways of making a living. I have addressed in other articles Overcoming Teacher Stress and Burnout and Why is the School Principal’s Role so Emotionally Demanding? the stresses faced by our teachers and school leaders. Notably, across a range of industries, women are reporting increasingly higher levels of workplace stress than men. This is particularly pertinent in schools, where women make up around three quarters of the workforce. We know that women in the workplace are facing an epidemic of poor mental and physical health. It is in the interests of society to address this issue. As the educators of future-generations, we need to ensure our female teachers and leaders are able to work to their full potential, rather than falling prey to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

In the UK, 79% of women report workplace stress compared to 66% of men (The 2018 UK Workplace Stress Survey). In a US study, 28% of women reported having a great deal of stress compared to 20% of men, with almost half of women reporting increasing stress levels over the past five years (2018 APA Stress in America Survey). Research shows that women report more high distress days than men and fewer no stress days. They also report a greater incidence of distress episodes (Almeida, 1998).  

While this data may be the result of gender differences in the perception of stress, or willingness to report stress, we do know  that women are more likely than men to suffer from a range of mental health outcomes. Women aged 25-40 are 3-4 times more likely to become depressed than men and women are 4 times more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Women are also more likely than men to become depressed when family relationships are disrupted and are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety-related disorders (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Women have more sensitive adrenal systems than men (Gallucci et al, 1993), have a stronger genetic predisposition to depression and experience more hormone fluctuations associated with depression, including premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression and menopause.

Women are much more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. In a study by the American Psychological Association women were more likely than men to report each of ten specific symptoms of stress, including lack of sleep, irritability, fatigue and depression (2018 APA Stress in America Survey). Three important studies from around the world have also uncovered strong links between women’s job stress and cardiovascular disease. The Women’s Health Study at Harvard Medical School found that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease, while a large 15-year study of nurses in Denmark (Allesoe et al, 2010) concluded that the greater the work pressure, the higher the risk for heart disease among women age 51 and under. A study of white-collar workers in Beijing (Xu et al, 2009) found that job strain was associated in women (but not in men) with increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, an early sign of cardiovascular disease. This should concern us, as women are three times more likely to die following a heart attack than men (Allabas et al, 2017) due to heart disease going undetected and untreated. Men are more likely to experience chest pain as a symptom of heart disease than women and, therefore, more likely to seek medical advice, whereas the symptoms that women experience such as fatigue and sleep disturbance are more easily dismissed.

So what is causing such high levels of stress in the female workforce? Firstly, we know that women perceive the quality of their working environment to be significantly lower than men (Stier & Yaish, 2014). Women are less likely to experience job satisfaction, be happy with their job flexibility and opportunities for advancement than men. Women also report higher levels of hostile social interactions, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The pay gap is also a major factor here. The average income for a female worker in the United States is around 80% of her male counterpart’s. This gender-based disparity in remuneration has been established as a major stressor at work, with a woman’s income level being closely linked with anxiety and depression Platt et al. (2014). Even in executive-level jobs, where individuals earn large salaries, women are still almost three times more likely to develop mental health problems as a result of the pay gap.

A number of studies have demonstrated how women feel the need to constantly prove themselves at work, by working harder than their male colleagues, in order to satisfy others of their level of  competence. Women are more likely to over-invest in their careers and accumulate unnecessary credentials, due to the implicit gender bias in favour of men (Risse, 2018). This brings significant additional workload and pressure for women, who are already overstretched. As carers and nurturers, women are also more likely to engage in emotional labour in the workplace, including “surface acting” where they force emotions that are not genuinely felt or mask true emotions. This emotional labour is associated with both emotional exhaustion and burnout (Hochschild, 1983).

The scope and nature of responsibilities in the home may also impact on women’s stress levels in the workplace. The United Nations reports that women perform nearly three times as much unpaid domestic work as men, bringing significant, additional workload and pressures. Women between the ages of 35 and 49, who may be responsible for both child care and the care of elderly parents, report the highest levels of workplace stress of any group. Married women also report more job stress than unmarried women, due to the demands of the roles assigned to them in the home (Parveen, 2009).

It seems that the impact of gender bias against women in the workplace, combined with the unfair distribution of workload in the home and our predisposition to a range of mental health issues may be resulting in a female workforce that is highly stressed and vulnerable. In the education sector, where women make up a massive proportion of the workforce, we are in danger of high stress levels undermining the fabric of our schools and communities. We need to find ways to address these issues, as a matter of urgency, if we are to avoid female teachers and leaders leaving the profession in droves or simply becoming burnt out . In this context, traditional stress management approaches, which place the onus on the individual to implement coping strategies, may be woefully inadequate to deal with the epidemic of stress we are facing. Governments and schools need to find ways to decrease work overload and stress for all educators but they also need to acknowledge the factors that make women, the majority of the profession, more vulnerable to workplace stress and its impacts. We need to raise awareness of the issues facing the female workforce and ensure these issues can be addressed at a governmental or organisational level rather than placing the onus on the individual.

Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader

In a previous article, The Loneliness of the International School Leader, I wrote about the professional and personal isolation of principals and heads around the world.We are built for social contact and there are serious, potentially life-threatening consequences when we do not get enough (Marano, 2003). Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). In the short-term, loneliness increases the level of circulating stress hormones in the body and impacts negatively on the quality and quantity of sleep, both closely linked to performance and effectiveness in our school leader roles. Longer term loneliness is associated with a wide range of physical and mental ill-health outcomes including depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease, stroke, alcoholism and drug abuse. Lonely people also have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012). It is crucial, therefore, that we take the issue of school leader isolation seriously and find ways to support principals and heads who may be experiencing loneliness.

Loneliness can be overcome, although it does require a conscious effort. The starting point is to recognise the loneliness, understand the effects it can have on your life and acknowledge that something needs to change (Marano, 2003). The second step is to focus on developing quality relationships with others. In my own research (Kelly, 2017) school leaders least vulnerable to isolation were those who worked as part of highly collaborative teams within the workplace or who understood the value of the people work in their schools and focused upon building positive relationships with their staff. By contrast those who felt the most isolated were often those caught up in the myth of the hero leader, feeling unable to share the burden of leadership even with their closest colleagues. Being honest about the struggles we face as leaders involves making ourselves vulnerable, which for many runs contrary to the idea of the strong and effective leader. Vulnerability, however, makes us more human and likeable and makes it easier to connect with others. Shedding the leadership mask and presenting to colleagues as a flawed human being makes us more relatable and authentic as leaders. We can also play a key role in modelling this for others, creating a culture of trust built on authenticity and vulnerability, factors essential to organisational effectiveness.

Humans are hardwired for connection and one of the ways we connect with others is by confiding in each other. An open style of leadership can protect us from loneliness but as school leaders we will not be able to confide everything to our teams.  It is, therefore, important that we find a confidant in school, someone who understands the context and can be trusted to be discrete. Developing strong peer relationships with senior colleagues, or even board members, is something we should prioritise and something that schools should be looking to create through team-building days and regular SLT social events. 

Reaching out to colleagues outside of our schools 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. Most cities or countries with a large number of international schools have principal groups that allow for this kind of collaboration. Others reported having created new groups on arrival in the city. Reaching out to former colleagues through Skype and at conferences is also a way to stay connected to others.

Building social connections outside of the workplace is a key strategy to avoid loneliness. The internet and social media makes it so much easier to find groups and clubs that share our interests these days. When we are exhausted, short of time and fear rejection, however, it can be hard to make the effort to reach out to others. Principals in my research who experienced the highest levels of loneliness reported having no hobbies, interests or social connections outside of school. Those who were most lonely were single or married without children and many experienced high levels of personal as well as professional loneliness. However, many participants with families or local friends also reported feeling isolated and unable to confide in their nearest and dearest about the challenges of their role. The message here is that failing to make the time or effort to reach out to others may come at a devastating cost and is something that needs to be prioritised, no matter how hard it is. Boards and senior leadership teams should be proactive in providing gym or club memberships to new leaders and also providing language lessons, where appropriate, to ensure that language issues do not further isolate individuals. 

The use of professional leadership coaches is something that should be provided for all senior school leaders. 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. 

On a final note, we all have a responsibility to ensure our colleagues do not fall prey to loneliness. Taking time to recognise that a peer may be isolated and making an effort to connect with that person, supporting them to find a route out of loneliness is the decent, human response to the misery we see in others. Making ourselves vulnerable and sharing our own isolation stories may encourage others to be more honest and open about the challenges they are up against and may just help them out of a hole.

The Loneliness of the International School Leader

The loneliness of headship is a commonly recurring theme in the literature on school leader wellbeing. What MacBeath (2009) calls “structural loneliness” results from the lack of external support available to school principals and the absence of a trustworthy peer group to confide in. Isolation leads to considerable emotional strain on heads (Crawford, 2007; MacBeath, 2009; Ackerman and Ostrowski, 2004; Beatty and Brew, 2004) that may have wider implications for their wellbeing.

“We can say that it is still, unfortunately, lonely at the top for school leaders…a kind of isolation that is not born of solitude… (and is) shared by school leaders everywhere” (Ackerman and Ostrowski, 2004).

Loneliness may be something school leaders have come to accept as a consequence of the role but the negative impact of this isolation on our wellbeing should not be underestimated. The Grant Study, a 75 year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard graduates, concludes that, above all other factors, “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.” Loneliness is closely associated with anxiety, depression and suicide, as well as physical ill health, and may be linked to increased aging at the cellular level (Wilson, 2018).

It can be argued that the loneliness school principals experience is compounded for leaders of international schools, who are often isolated from the normal physical and psychosocial support systems that heads are able to rely upon in their home countries. In my own doctoral research into international school leader wellbeing, more than half of the participants interviewed referred to the emotional strain placed upon them by the isolation and loneliness of the role and the impact on their personal and professional lives.

This may be particularly so in the first 2-3 years after taking up a new role, as administrators struggle to come to grips with the demands of the job and are left with insufficient time or energy to build social connections. For international school teachers, colleagues often form the basis of their social support network but this is not the norm for school leaders. Many find the challenges of their new role overwhelming during the first few months and experience difficulties building personal relationships or developing a social life outside of school, yet there is little evidence of any support being provided to new heads (Hayden, 2006).

Those who arrive without a family to support them can be the most vulnerable. In my study, several interview participants describe considerable personal loneliness during their transition to a new country. One describes his transition as “very hard and frustrating and much lonelier than I thought it would be.” He describes a situation where staff confronted him over a new initiative he launched in the first few months of his tenure, when he was subjected to “personal attacks”, which “were sustained over several weeks” and left him feeling “incredibly isolated.” He describes the staff during this time as “extremely resistant, volatile and unforgiving”. 

“That has an emotional toll, which has been really quite difficult to deal with. Feeling judged all the time, being under a microscope, being torn apart. There is no sense of team no one helps me out.”

Loneliness for some may last well beyond the transition period. One study participant describes having spent most of the last nine years, since she took up her role, alone. She shares negative experiences when trying to socialise with both staff and parents.

“I have been burned a couple of times having friendships with parents. One woman moved away after five years and it was a good thing as she was taking advantage.”

“Being the principal is the loneliest job in the world. You know you go to a function and the staff are drunk and come up in your face all glassy eyed and I don’t want to see it… So I don’t go to these things or I go an hour late and leave after an hour.”

For this participant, life outside of school consisted of evenings and weekends playing spider solitaire and watching DVDs, with a weekly massage as her only social interaction.

“You know I have had a massage therapist come to my house once a week for a couple of years now… I have noticed that if I do not have a massage I become tactilely deficient and kind of flinch when the kids touch me. I do it so I remain comfortable with touch.”

For those new to headship, the isolation of the role can come as a shock.

“In the past two years, since becoming a head, I have found it more stressful as there is no one else to go to…There are very few people you can talk to as a head. You cannot be friends with the staff… You have to be comfortable in your own company. It is an oxymoron as it is such a sociable job but you have to like being alone too.”

For some, professional isolation may be just as big an issue as personal loneliness.

“There is no network to look to for support. You have to create your own network. There is no infrastructure for dealing with problems outside the school and so you have to create all of this inside the school and deal with things you would not have to deal with ordinarily.”

More experienced heads, with a wider professional network, are more likely to seek support from colleagues outside of their own school. Many noted that they enjoy the opportunity to connect with other school leaders during conferences and recruitment fairs and some described the importance of these opportunities to sit down with others, who understand the pressures they are under, over a drink or dinner to discuss the challenges they are encountering and seek advice.

For those with less of an external network, senior colleagues within their school are a valuable source of support.

“I am lucky that my current boss has a happy character or I would have no one.”

Humans are hard wired to connect and social connections are consistently demonstrated as a major factors supporting happiness, health and longevity. Professional and personal isolation is a very real issue for international school leaders. If we are to avoid the longer term health implications that loneliness brings, we need to start taking the isolation we experienced more seriously and find ways to connect and support each other, particularly young colleagues new to the role.

Why is the School Principal’s Role so Emotionally Draining?

There is considerable evidence that school leaders find their work stressful and that, for many, this is impacting on their individual wellbeing. A study into the recruitment and retention of Scottish head teachers (MacBeath, 2012) found that only 9% of respondents felt their personal health and wellbeing was not a concern, while a US study of school principals in 2007 (Shields) found that 83% of respondents reported moderate to high levels of stress. Research from England, during the same period, found that the prevalence of work-related stress of head teachers was double that of the general population and that head teachers suffered significantly worse mental health than other managers and professionals (Phillips et al, 2008). This was mirrored in the 2017 Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, where school leaders were shown to experience 1.7 times the emotional demands and 1.6 times the burnout of the general population.

Until a decade ago, the conversation about school leader stress focused upon the heavy workload and long hours. This remains relevant with the England Workload Survey 2013, demonstrating that the average UK head teacher works 63.3 hours per week with 20% of their work being carried out at home. However, there is a much greater understanding today of the emotional demands of the role and the impact this can have on wellbeing. There is now much wider recognition that leading schools is an inherently emotional practice, primarily due to the people-centred nature of schools, placing relationships at the heart of the head teacher ́s role. Researchers have focused upon the pivotal position of the principal, around whom all relationships in school oscillate, in order to understand the emotional aspects of the role. The head teacher is an emotional conduit or buffer for the emotions of others, whose role it is to soak up the difficult or unwanted emotional states of the school community. Principals find themselves at a crossroads of different interests, acting as gatekeepers.

The nature of the leadership role, particularly in the high accountability climate of recent years, places high expectations on the leader, which can create fear and anxiety, rendering leaders vulnerable and insecure. This is compounded by the lonely nature of the school leader ́s role, with the necessary boundaries of leadership meaning that a degree of isolation is inevitable.

The complexity and intensity of these experiences means that school leaders are confronted on a daily basis with a range of emotions, both their own and others, which need to be managed. A key part of the leadership role, therefore, concerns managing the emotions of others and ones self, involving emotional labour, as leaders manage their own emotional display by suppressing their feelings in order to emotionally support others or by faking positive emotions to raise the spirits of the community.

Suppression of emotion, to detach from one ́s true feelings, may be a crucial tool to enable school leaders to protect themselves from the emotional demands of the role but, over time, disengaging from the emotions they feel may make significant inroads into their sense of self, leading to them losing the capacity to regulate their feelings and causing emotive dissonance. Burying emotions can be very draining, leaving school leaders vulnerable to emotional exhaustion and burnout, as emotional resources become depleted.

School leaders are also vulnerable to sustaining  wounds, caused by the emotional fall-out of day-to-day decision-making. This is compounded by an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility that many principals feel, where they are unable to balance their own personal needs with those of the role, attempting to live up to the myth of the heroic leader while placing their health at risk.

Why Principal Wellbeing Should Matter to the Whole Community

Employees today, across a range of industries, are experiencing increased work-related stress. The intensification of work, as technology speeds up the movement of data and increases time and deadline pressures, and the increasing complexity and pace of life, are making work-life balance more difficult to achieve for many. There is plenty of evidence to support the view that, like many others, school leaders around the world are experiencing increased levels of stress. This impacts on their wellbeing but may also have implications for their effectiveness in the role and even their tenure.

A number of studies in the field of work-related stress show a negative relationship between job stress and job performance. Research supports an individual as having a  zone of optimal functioning, with a preferred level of stress for optimal performance. Beyond this level of stress, their functioning is impaired and their effectiveness reduced. Healthy employees have also been shown to be more committed to their job, tending to work harder and provide higher levels of high-value customer service, more resilient and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and ambiguity.

Several studies have linked workplace stress with turnover of staff, with individuals reporting high stress levels more likely to resign their posts. In public school systems worldwide, we are currently witnessing a crisis of recruitment and retention of school leaders, which many are now linking to increasing stress levels. In the USA, only half of newly recruited principals remain in post for as long as three years, with less than 30% remaining for five years or more. In England, the crisis in recruitment and retention of head teachers is being increasingly linked to excessive workloads and high levels of stress. International schools are also exposed to challenges retaining leaders, with the average tenure of an international school head teacher being only 3.7 years. The cost of replacing lost staff can be considerable. While there is no standard formula, experts estimate that the total replacement cost of a leaver can be as much as 100% of the annual salary.

In addition to the cost, there are other factors to be taken into consideration when assessing the impact of school leader stress on the organisation. According to the OECD, as the key intermediary between the classroom, the individual school and the education system as a whole, effective school leadership is essential to improve the efficiency and equity of schooling. Stable school leadership matters to school performance based on a number of indicators. School leaders contribute to improved student learning by shaping the conditions and climate in which teaching and learning occur. Effective and stable school leadership impacts student outcomes, with grades increasing with the length of tenure of the head. It also influences teacher turnover, which decreases as leadership in a school becomes more stable. Leadership even affects teachers’ attitudes to change. Michael Fullan describes how teachers are much less likely to implement change in their classroom if they know that the principal is leaving, preferring to wait the leadership out rather than press forward with new initiatives.

Taking care of school leader wellbeing is not just about individual health and happiness. It can have much wider implications for the school as a whole and for students and staff. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that school leaders are fit and healthy enough to maximise their own performance and the performance of the school.

Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?

The demands on middle leaders in schools are increasing, accompanied by increased levels of stress. In the past, the middle leader role was often defined in one of two ways, coordinator or head of department. A coordinator was tasked with managing the administrative needs of the subject area, ordering resources, keeping the stock cupboard tidy and organising field trips. A head of department has traditionally been an expert in their subject, with exceptional knowledge and teaching skills, who was tasked with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, monitoring teaching and learning and advocating for their subject area in budget discussions.

That is rapidly changing as the role of the middle leader has shifted to focus much more upon people and change leadership, with an emphasis upon trust and culture building. Middle leaders are expected, not only to act as models of exceptional classroom practice, but to inspire others to realise their potential and create healthy and collaborative team dynamics. The distribution of leadership from senior to middle level has raised the expectation of what middle leaders should achieve and passed down many elements of leadership that were previously the responsibility of the senior leadership team. This attempt to empower those in the middle, while mostly well intentioned, has led to increased stress being experienced by those in middle leader roles, much of which is going unacknowledged.

While there is a paucity of research on the stresses of middle leadership in schools, what we do know is that there are a number of significant factors that are bringing greater pressure to bear upon middle leaders. The first is role ambiguity. In many schools, senior leadership teams have redefined the role of their middle leaders, while poorly communicating this to the middle leader team and providing little guidance or clarity on what is now expected. The intersection of roles between senior and middle leadership, or between different roles at the middle level can also lead to confusion.

The increasing complexity of the middle leader role leaves many middle leaders wearing a range of hats, many of which are new. Middle leaders may still be expected to fulfil the traditional coordinator or head of department role, placing orders and managing budgets, while also taking on fresh responsibility for people leadership and complex change management. With the limited amount of time available to carry out the middle leader role, this can lead to exhaustion and the feeling of being overwhelmed. This may also lead to role conflict, with middle leaders failing to balance the demands of their classroom teaching with the expectations of the leadership post.

Middle leaders often find themselves being pulled in two directions, managing both up and down, trying to meet the needs of their departmental colleagues, while at the same time fulfilling the expectations of those above. SLT may view the middle leadership team as a buffer between themselves and the wider teaching staff, able to translate the school’s vision and implement it in the classrooms, effectively doing all the hard work while the senior team pulls the strings. Seldom are middle leadership teams included in the vision building process. This can result in middle leaders implementing strategic goals with which they do not agree and into which they have had no input. Conflict between the middle leader’s values and those that underpin decisions taken at a higher level might arise, which can cause enormous stress for some.

Building collegiality is now considered a key component of the middle leader’s role, a process that requires trust building and an understanding of how to tap into human emotions. Creating a highly effective and collaborative team from a disparate group of individuals, many of whom may not get along with each other, is a highly skilful process, requiring training and years of experience. Trust and collegiality may also be hard to build while middle leaders are at the same time expected to monitor the work of their colleagues through their involvement in the appraisal process.

Middle leaders are increasingly responsible for leading and implementing change, encouraging colleagues to jump from the known to the unknown by adopting innovative teaching practices and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Senior leaders fail to acknowledge that they are tasking those who have the least authority in the leadership hierarchy with this complex and demanding process. Without this authority, middle leaders are left to rely upon their relationships and the people skills they have acquired to bring people on board with change. Seldom are they provided with training in how to motivate, nurture and support others. This skills gap can lead to unpleasant and stressful conflict with team members, which may erode trust, collegiality and motivation.

While the push to distribute leadership is often well intentioned and rooted in current research, schools are at risk of creating teams of middle leaders who feel isolated, overwhelmed, and unsupported and who may be simply unable to fulfil the expectations of the role. If leadership is to continue to be distributed for the benefit of the organisation, then middle leaders should be provided with time and training and support to enable them to flourish in their roles.

Why Relationships Matter Most in Maximising School Leader Wellbeing

Research shows that the interpersonal demands placed on school leaders bring just as much stress, if not more, than the workload demands of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Relationships with adults, particularly teachers, are one of the most challenging aspects of a senior or middle leader’s role. Conflict most commonly occurs during periods of change, or over staff competency or discipline issues.

Many leaders are frustrated by the amount of time and energy they perceive as being “wasted” doing people work. Time that is taking them away from the “real work” of improving the school, through the development of the curriculum, systems and policies. Reshaping our thinking to place relationships at the centre of our leadership practice can significantly reduce stress levels and enhance our wellbeing and resilience.

Positive relationships are a central pillar of human flourishing. Human beings are hardwired for connection and the isolation and loneliness that many school leaders experience can have damaging effects on our long term health and wellbeing. Acknowledging the importance of connection and taking time, on a daily basis, to nurture the adult relationships in school is key in reducing stress and maximising our wellbeing.

So how do we build positive adult relationships in our schools? The first step is to acknowledge that school leadership is, first and foremost, people work. People work is the real work, rather than something that takes us away from the real work. The second step is to shed the leadership mask, take off the armour and present ourselves to others as authentic human beings. Making ourselves vulnerable by sharing our hopes, fears and challenges allows others to relate to us on a human level and provides an environment where genuine connections can be fostered.

Making time to connect with others is crucial, creating opportunities to develop an authentic relationship with every member of our team, enabling us to know them as individuals and providing time for them to get to know us too. Finding ways to show that we care and demonstrating the empathy and compassion that brought us into teaching in the first place is also key. Admiring others and letting them know they are appreciated, through sincere gratitude and praise should also be a part of our daily leadership practice. Building individual connections in this way builds trust and models for others the transformational potential of supportive relationships.

By improving our connection with others, we increase the number of positive emotions we experience each day, allowing for the release of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. During challenging times, this can counterbalance the stress hormones coursing through our bodies, which can be highly beneficial to health. More significant, however, is the impact of positive relationships on the emotional climate in which we work. By prioritising the people work and creating a culture built upon vulnerability and trust, the interpersonal demands of the role will decrease, allowing us to work in greater harmony with those around us, maximising not only our own wellbeing but that of everyone else.