Going into September as a new headteacher, I decided on a mantra – “Be kind to yourself”. I knew that being a head would be challenging so, as simple as it sounds, I planned to look after myself.
To date, the job has encompassed anxieties every headteacher has to deal with – including a phone call from Ofsted one Wednesday morning in February. But so far, my mantra has really helped me, reminding me at times that I need to check my internal monologue and that I need to promote my own wellbeing.
Teachers’ mental health and wellbeing have been much reported on lately, with retention rates in the profession a real problem. The charity Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 states that 76 per cent of education professionals reported work being a contributing factor in their symptoms of negative wellbeing.
Heads are particularly at risk because of the high levels of accountability and responsibility we currently inherit. The same survey states that 40 per cent of senior leaders showed signs of depression in 2018, up from 25 per cent the previous year, and 80 per cent described themselves as stressed. The long hours and loneliness of leadership are also a problem.
Wellbeing and mental health are now on the national agenda, with charities such as Mind, Education Support Partnership, the Heads Together campaign and the Time to Change social movement attempting to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues. But there are also things that school leaders can do to develop our psychological resilience. To be clear, this does not remove the responsibility from others, but we do have some control over our own wellbeing, too.
Community is key to mental health
Research from the World Health Organisation suggests that engaging with a community is essential for good mental health. Headteacher Chris McDonald decided to set up a Whatsapp group for heads to combat the isolation of his role; many school leaders connect on Twitter; and attaching yourself to a professional group of like-minded people can help.
Education Support Partnership’s Headspace initiative also focuses on community. The programme brings together a small group of school leaders to share ideas, knowledge and experiences, led by a skilled facilitator, over the course of about six sessions. One head in Suffolk said Headspace had given them “an opportunity to step off the treadmill and think differently”. And Leeds City Council has decided to assign all new heads a place on the programme, recently completing its eighth year. The feedback from headteachers has been overwhelmingly positive.
Ask for support
People who work in high-pressure jobs often receive external support. Take the England football Team, for example, or British Cycling, both of which consulted sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters, whose mind management strategy is credited with multiple Olympic medals, World Championships and even the U-turn in England penalty shoot-out fortunes.
Now I’m no Steven Gerrard but many of the high-pressure elements of a professional sports person’s life aren’t too far removed from the stresses and accountability of school leadership. I now make sure I engage in structured reflective practice in the form of external coaching.
A study for The Journal of Positive Psychology shows a firm theoretical foundation for coaching, with significant positive effects on wellbeing, performance, skills, coping attitudes and self-regulation. Personally, I choose to work with someone who is not from an educational background. This helps me to gain some perspective on the task at hand and avoid the potential groupthink of the education sector. Giving back to the community is also important: since going on to provide coaching for others, I have found this to be as helpful to my own reflective practice as receiving support.
Learn to switch off
The inability to switch off is a major contributing factor to a negative work-life balance. Actively ensuring that we are doing something other than work is essential. Yet when 72 per cent of teachers cite workload as the main reason for considering leaving their jobs, how can we find the time to switch off, do other things, say no and manage our workflow?
Finding time to be mindful can be helpful. This doesn’t have to be meditating with the Dalai Lama, but could be simple reflection, taking note or building in structured time such as listening to a daily podcast. This does, however, need to be long-term behavioural change rather than a quick-fix mentality. Other often neglected significant factors include sleep, diet and nutrition. I personally go running, an example of an action-based way of supporting wellbeing, which some suggest is more effective in promoting wellbeing in men than face-to-face conversation. Ultimately, however, what you do is irrelevant; it’s doing it that counts.
Creativity boosts wellbeing
Perhaps more controversially, I believe that taking on further projects can actually relieve stress and promote creativity. This creativity motivates you, creates new energy and reboots the system.
Author Tim Harford describes this as slow-motion multi-tasking. In his 2016 book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives he provides lots of examples of this, from Steve Jobs to Brian Eno. Harford points out that “a fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention like tourists gawping at details that a local would find mundane”.
Just like tourism, diverse work-streams encourage you to meet new people who think differently. Expanding our interactions increases our opportunities to make further connections and challenges our point of view – both factors that could be used to develop resilience and therefore potentially improve wellbeing.
As the NHS’ five steps to mental wellbeing remind us, there are steps we can all take to improve our wellbeing. Of course, this doesn’t excuse the impact of societal values and the need for change, but why not be proactive in supporting your own wellbeing? Don’t forget, if leaders do not look after themselves, they cannot look after their teams and emotional contagion can happen, whereby stress is passed down the line.
Give yourself permission to "be kind to yourself"; it will help you to be more effective when looking after everyone else.
Tom Procter-Legg is headteacher of Iffley Academy in Oxford
Find out more about Education Support Partnership’s Headspace initiative here. If you are struggling with your wellbeing or mental health, please call Education Support Partnership’s free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561