Senior Leader Workshops

The Role of the Stress Response in Modern Day Life

The human brain has not evolved that much over the last 200,000 years. The evolutionary brain is concerned with two things-survival and getting our genes into the next generation. We live in a state of constant hypervigilance or fight or flight. We are hard wired this way.

Negative experiences stick to us like Velcro. We ruminate on them and blow them out of proportion in our minds. Positive experiences slide of us like Teflon.

A small amount of stress “eustress” is good for us and essential to our performance in our role as leaders. Too much stress can be damaging and may lead to burnout or breakdown as well.

Stress at work can be categorised as workload stress-having too much to do and not enough time to do it…

…and emotional stress. Schools are powerhouses of emotion and school leaders are faced with a range of emotional challenges in the normal course of their role.

A major cause of these emotional challenges is adult relationships.

Relationships with Teachers

Dealing with staff disciplinary or performance related issues is a major cause of stress for school leaders.

School leaders find attempting to build collegiality among a disparate group of teacher, who often have nothing in common, stressful.

In order to build effective teams, leaders need to build trust…

…but this can be challenging when we are also tasked with monitoring and evaluating people.

Leading and managing change is also highly stressful. School leaders are asking staff to leave a place of comfort and safety to enter into the unknown.

We are also expected to inspire people…

…motivate them…

…and support them.

Because teachers emotions are so close to the surface, due to the nature of the job, teachers are much more challenging to deal with than employees in other contexts.

Relationships with Parents

Relationships with parents can also be challenging, often because parents have different expectations about the role of education and of the school.

Relationships with the Board

Relationships with the Board of Governors can be stressful for a range of reasons, including the Boar involving themselves in operational matters and micromanaging senior leadership. Parent governors have a tendency to pursue their own agendas. The rapid turnover of parent Boards at international schools may also be an issue.

Relationships with Senior Colleagues

Senior colleagues should be our greatest allies and advocates but sometimes these relationships take a turn for the worse and can be a senior leader’s biggest sources of stress.

Cross-cultural Relationships

In international schools we are dealing with the complexity of cross-cultural relationships, which can bring additional stress. The skills we have developed in one school/culture do not necessarily transfer to another.

The Role of Transition

In international schools there is likely to be much more transition than we will find in schools elsewhere. A school may be in a constant state of transition, with teachers, students, parents and leaders moving in and out.

Members of the community are likely to be on their own transition curve, which brings a whole range of emotions. Transition lasts for around three years.

During this transition period and even afterwards, members of the school community rely upon the school as a social safety net. Many of us are thousands of miles away from family and friends and the school is ours only support. This brings huge responsibility for school leaders and likely stress.

School leaders are at the crossroads of all relationships within the school. They are often the conduit through which emotions flow.

This can lead to them getting involved in a range of conflict.

For which they are ill-prepared to deal, due to lack of training…

…and support.

The Nature of the Work

School leaders have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Often feeling responsible fro everything that goes on in the school, even when they may have little control over many things.

Dirty Work

School leaders have to get involved with things they would rather not such as implementing pay cuts or dealing with the aftermath of a student death.

Leadership Performance

Leaders can feel as though they are under a microscope with everything they say and do being analysed and judged. The pressure to perform can be enormous.

Fear of failure can be debilitating for some.


50% of international school senior leaders say they feel lonely or isolated. Loneliness is associated with a range of ill health impacts, including early death. Humans are hardwired to connect with each other but this can be challenging for international school leaders as they are often unable to form relationships with colleagues and do not have enough spare time to build relationships outside of school.

The Impact of Stress

Wellbeing and Flourishing

Most stress management approaches focus on us reflecting on how we might manage stress by changing our habits.

These approaches deal with the symptoms of stress and not the underlying causes and have limiteds success.

We need to change the environment around us…

…to ensure we are flourishing.

Research shows that the same things that make us flourish also build resilience for hard times.

We need to find ways in the course of the regular day to release happy hormones.

Positive psychology provides a framework for human flourishing that helps us to improve the environment around us so that we get less stressed.

PERMAH provides a highly effective framework for improving workplace wellbeing.

The PERMAH Workplace Survey is a useful tool to help us to evaluate our wellbeing in the workplace and provide goals for us to improve our wellbeing.

It provides a PERMAH Profile and tips to improve the mow scoring areas of PERMAH.

Positive Relationships

We know that we are hardwired to connect with other humans and that social connections are the single most important factor in human flourishing, improving wellbeing and longevity. Loneliness by contrast is associated with high levels of depression, suicide and disease.

Building positive relationships is the single most important thing we can do to improve wellbeing. It takes a village to raise a child but it also takes a village to raise a thriving adult.

In there workplace, building and environment of positive relationships is a win win situation, as not only does it improve wellbeing but it improves productivity and is correlated with many other markers of organisational success.

As school leaders, we need to break out of the office e and build better relationships with the community. It is a mistake to think that people work gets in the way of the real work. People work is the real work.

We need to make time for others and be aware that everything we say and do matters. The way we are perceived is important.

How many of these things can we honestly say we do all or most of the time?

We need to show ourselves as authentic human beings by dropping the leadership mask…

…and being prepared to make ourselves vulnerable to others and encouraging them to do the same. By acknowledging our shared humanity, we can transform the work environment to one which prioritises positive relationships.


As educators we are lucky as research shows that we find more meaning in our work than other professionals.

Finding shared meaning with our work colleagues is important in building positive relationships. This occurs when we acknowledge our shared values. When share our intention and purpose with others and find common intention and purpose.

This way we all feel we are working towards a common purpose. This brings meaning into work, helps us to form bonds with others and energises us.

Positive Emotions

Negative emotions stick to us like Velcro and positive emotions slide off like Teflon. This means we have to actively find ways to generate positive emotions each day and savour them if we are to experience the release of happy hormones.

Positive emotions are associated with a huge range of positive wellbeing outcomes.

Experiencing micro-moments of positive emotions each day leads to an upward spiral of positivity.

We need to experience a ratio of around 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion to experience peak wellbeing.

Tools to Support Positive Emotions

We need to find ways to move off automatic pilot. Our default is negative so in order to experience a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions, we need to be intentional and purposeful by actively seeking ways to generate positive emotions.

Using our character strengths ( has been demonstrated to have a greater impact on our wellbeing than any other positive psychology intervention.

Our character strengths can be viewed as our superpowers. By drawing on them , rather than improving our weaknesses, we can become more effective and energised. Using a signature strength (one of our top 5 strengths) in a new way every day for a week has been associated with improved wellbeing and reduced depressions for 6 months post-intervention.

Savouring is a technique to ensure we are making the most of the positive emotions we experience. Research shows for example that the average hug takes 3 seconds but it takes a hug of 20 seconds for happy hormones to be released.

There are many techniques to savour past, present and future experiences to generate positive emotions such as sharing family photos with a colleague and sharing a special memory.

Gratitude is another technique to help us generate positive emotions. Like character strengths, gratitude interventions such as Three Good Things are some of the most successful positive psychology interventions for improving wellbeing measures. Three Good Things involves finding and writing down or sharing with another three new things that you are grateful for each day for one month.

Modelling gratitude, admiration and appreciation for others is also key in building positive relationships in the workplace.

This creates an environment where people find it easy to show appreciation for others and generates positive emotions.