A few weeks ago, I was driving back from another late college meeting; it was the end of a 70-plus-hour working week and lists of unfinished jobs whirled around in my head.
We've had to grapple with plenty of major issues: a second merger in two years; Education and Skills Funding Agency intervention; post-Ofsted plans for the new term; a £30 million budget that only just balances; changes in the senior team; and disruption to staff through necessary, but rapid, change.
My headache was pumping and the fatigue was extreme: tiredness hung behind my eyes and thoughts began to quickly tumble out of control. My fingers started to tingle, my breathing got shorter and I was overwhelmed by a flood of emotions – of fear, sadness and helplessness.
I pulled over on a dark, deserted rural Norfolk road, placed my head against the wheel and fought to get myself back in check. After 10 minutes of “box-breathing meditation”, it passed.
It was the third time that month that this had happened.
Working in a senior role in a college or any large organisation means that you are subjected to a false, ongoing narrative of heroic leadership that we as leaders keep clinging to, and some other staff do, too.
I have spoken out over many years now about the need for a wellbeing and mental health agenda. I have coached many leaders in resilience, stress techniques, wellbeing strategies. I have a good understanding of positive psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy and its benefits.
Such knowledge and techniques can create a depth of understanding and approaches to care of self and others, and can provide some armour plating, but they are not superpowers. The stress is beginning to take its toll.
Leaders 'under attack'
The definition of stress relates to an emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Everyone has the capacity and capability to weather a single storm, but their ability to do so begins to look doubtful amid a relentless and sustained hurricane that is unpredictable and fierce.
Colleges have now been under attack for many years and I would argue that their leaders are under sustained mental attack.
I have spoken one-to-one with many college principals and senior leaders who have all individually reported concerns about their own wellbeing and mental health. They report very high stress, bursts of fear and anxiety, and depressive episodes.
This is spoken about quietly; in hushed tones, they talk of the physical symptoms and early warning indicators of poor mental health and distress.
The sector is also guilty of generating its own pressure: principals acting against other principals; the sector’s delight and schadenfreude in weekly “public beheadings”; or rumours of another leader leaving the sector because “they can’t take the pace”.
Poor mental health now seems to be the acceptable hidden cost of FE leadership. It is present among all FE roles, but is especially acute among leaders given their isolation.
Serving as a college principal is an absolute privilege. Principals are driven, focused on delivering the best for students and staff, have a role of community influence, and good leaders are essential for the ongoing survival of some of our at-risk colleges. But would I recommend the job to a friend? Probably not.
Weathering the 'perfect storm'
No one comes to work intending to fail or to be judged as failing. In FE, we are now playing a game with people's lives that feels at times impossible to win. The responsibility and accountability of this can be overwhelming, and the disappointment both personal and acute.
The analogy of a ship’s captain is well rehearsed, as we weather the perfect storm. But right now in FE, most captains are not in a ship, but are either set adrift in a leaky lifeboat or, worse still, are in the cold, choppy water.
In these positions, the tactics must change and become about urgent survival. College losses always feel very personal and the emotional effect is clear. There will always be pressure at work – it’s an issue of quantum and sustainment.
What happens when your best efforts simply aren’t good enough to keep pace with a sector that’s rocking on its heels, like a boxer punched cleanly on the jaw and who is knocked out, but too stupid or stubborn to lay on the canvas?
I must say that this article is definitely not a personal cry for help. I have good tactics, family and friends and colleagues to support my journey. It is, however, an urgent call for an honest conversation about leadership and mental health in our sector.
If senior leaders have the strength to stand up, then it will empower staff to speak up. We have a duty to look after our own wellbeing, so we can look after that of our staff and students.
I’ll be bringing together groups of leaders soon for some roundtable discussions to start this conversation. Like the national campaign linked to this week's World Mental Health Day says, it is “time to talk”.
I hope that FE principals are bold enough to take up this challenge with me.
Five tips to look after your mental health
- Define your self-care package: when things get tough, have a set, planned routine to look after you across the physical, emotional and spiritual zones. Seek sanctuary in this routine.
- Celebrate the small victories: keep moving forward and keep a weekly achievement log. Remember the zen kōan: “Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, then it's found the stone.”
- Be present: work on being focused on what’s in front of you. Meditation and deeper breathing can help hugely.
- Pay attention to the physical: even small amounts of exercise, remembering to eat, sleep, and cutting out caffeine and alcohol can help.
- Find balance: rather than the working day being the be-all and end-all, ensure you do one thing outside of that – it instantly helps to get out of "work mode".
Stuart Rimmer is principal and chief executive of East Coast College