How is the stress of Covid-19 affecting school leaders?

Interested to understand the impact of the pandemic on school leader wellbeing, Helen Kelly conducted her own research and was worried by the results
2nd December 2020, 3:00pm
Helen Kelly

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How is the stress of Covid-19 affecting school leaders?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-stress-covid-19-affecting-school-leaders
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When I decided to conduct my own survey into the wellbeing of school leaders across the UK, I was expecting the results to be worrying, especially given the context of the coronavirus pandemic. 

What I found was a picture of high stress levels and difficulties coping with the demands of the current crisis that exceeded my expectations.

Of the 574 UK leaders who responded to the online survey of 37 questions, which I distributed in October via educational leadership groups on social media platforms, 91per cent of leaders said their workload has increased since the start of the pandemic, while 90 per cent felt that work-related stress was higher. Seventy-four per cent reported their current stress levels as extremely high or very high, with 62 per cent experiencing stressful events or situations on at least a daily basis. Seventy per cent said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020.

All respondents worked in the state sector, with 51 per cent working in primary schools, 47 per cent in secondary schools and 2 per cent in all-through schools. Fifty-five per cent of respondents were headteachers or executive heads, 30 per cent assistant or deputy heads, while 15 per cent were in middle leadership roles, such as head of key stage or head of year.  

School leader wellbeing and coronavirus stress

The feedback I received suggested that 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!"  

Taking responsibility for keeping the school community safe and supporting the emotional needs of others emerged as consistent themes from the study. Ninety per cent of leaders said their work is more emotionally challenging than usual. Seventy-nine per cent found work with parents to be more emotionally demanding than before the pandemic, while 75 per cent said the same of their work with teachers and 62 per cent of their work with students. A smaller number found work with the board of governors (46 per cent) or senior colleagues (56 per cent) to be more challenging than usual. 

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.

Headteachers also described feeling more lonely and isolated since the crisis began and were concerned about their own wellbeing. Only 33 per cent of leaders reported getting enough practical support in school, while 46 per cent reported receiving sufficient emotional support; 23 per cent said they are receiving no emotional support. Sixty-seven per cent 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."

Seventy per cent 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 wellbeing for the benefit of others".

While 44 per cent of leaders reported success with healthy coping strategies such as exercise, 48 per cent admitted to using passive coping strategies such as alcohol, food or drugs to help them get through - and only 16 per cent felt they were getting enough sleep.  

School leader stress: what can be done about the problem?

While the study's findings raise a number of significant concerns about the wellbeing of our school leaders during the current crisis, it also points to some practical ways in which this may be addressed. When asked what immediate support they would like to receive, 45 per cent of leaders identified a need for improved guidance and support from central and local government. 

This should take the form of: 

  • clear and consistent communications, delivered in a timely manner;
  • ensuring that new directives are no longer announced late on Friday, in order to give leaders a better chance to recover over the weekend;
  • the provision of government funding to cover the costs of additional cleaning, health and safety measures and increased supply teachers since September; and
  • a moratorium on all Ofsted inspections

These measures would allow school leaders to focus more on managing the immediate crisis, supporting their communities and looking after their own needs. 

Local authorities should also take steps to establish and strengthen peer networks to facilitate leaders seeking and offering support to each other. Fifty-three per cent of respondents identified connecting with others as their most effective coping strategy, and while many heads already seek support from colleagues in other schools, 27 per cent of respondents said they would welcome opportunities to connect more with other school leaders. 

In the medium term, the provision of coaching training to all heads and deputies could facilitate this process further. Professional coaching was also identified in the study as a potential source of support for school leaders, with 31 per cent of leaders feeling they would benefit from this. Boards of governors and trade unions both have a role to play in providing resources to establish and utilise effective coaching programmes across the country. 

The findings of the study draw into question the effectiveness of school leader training, with only 21 per cent of respondents reporting that their training had prepared them for the current crisis. An immediate review of headteacher training and CPD should take place to ensure that leaders have the necessary skills to address the real demands of the job. Forty-two per cent of respondents identified a need for crisis management training, while 41 per cent would like CPD focused upon supporting the emotional needs of others.

So much training is focused on school improvement, with little attention being paid to "whole leader" training to prepare heads and deputies for the emotional challenges they encounter in their daily work. Likewise, little CPD time is used to facilitate meaningful conversations between leaders about the demands of their role or to listen properly to what leaders have to say about their training and support. 

Finally, it is not surprising that 50 per cent of respondents in the study said they would like more time to attend to their personal needs, while 33 per cent would like direction in how to support their own wellbeing. Governors need to ensure they are encouraging a culture of self-care and providing space for heads and deputies to focus upon themselves. Plentiful research demonstrates that this is likely to bring a healthy return in the form of reduced headteacher turnover and, most importantly, improved pupil outcomes. Allowing heads to work from home regularly, reducing after-school commitments and providing lieu days as opportunities for recovery could have a significant impact not only on leaders but on the whole school community.

Dr Helen Kelly is a retired principal

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