The impact of workload school leaders | Education Support
Mental health and wellbeing of headteachers and school leaders

The impact of workload school leaders

Current education policy is not addressing the mental health and wellbeing of school leaders say Jonathan Glazzard and Samuel Stones of Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University.

The current policy context in education focuses on the need for school leaders to reduce the unnecessary workload of teachers, particularly in relation to planning, assessment and data management tasks (Ways to reduce workload in your school, DfE, 2018).

The new Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019) focuses on the extent to which school leaders take action to reduce the workload of teachers and protect them from bullying and harassment.

Whilst these developments are indeed laudable, it is concerning that educational policy is not addressing the health and wellbeing of school leaders. Great leaders create great schools. They create the necessary conditions for staff and students to thrive. However, great leadership rarely comes without personal sacrifice and going above and beyond the call of duty.

Not only must school leaders manage the workload of colleagues, they are also required to manage their own heavy workloads. Many school leaders work excessively long hours, often investing time in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays into their work. They often need to constantly juggle competing demands and re-prioritise the tasks which they are required to complete. They are accountable to their students, staff, parents, governors, Ofsted, Local Authority personnel or leaders of Multi-Academy Trusts and to the Department for Education. They are well aware of their responsibilities and their relentless commitment to their role often has a negative impact on their personal lives and their relationships.

Recent data from Education Support's 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index illustrates the impact of workload on the mental health and wellbeing of school leaders:

  • 84% of senior leaders responded they were stressed, compared to 73% of teachers and 61% of people working in other roles.
  • Senior leaders were more likely to cope with workplace stress or anxiety by turning to food/eating to cope than staff working in other roles, and senior leaders were more likely to have used alcohol than teachers or staff working in other roles.
  • Senior leaders work much longer hours than they are contracted to do – only 3% are contracted to work 51+ hours per week and yet 68% do so.
  • Senior leaders were more likely to have experienced behavioural,physical and psychological symptoms, compared with teachers and staff working in other roles.
  • Senior leaders were more likely than those in teaching or other roles to have considered leaving due to health and wellbeing issues.

There is often the assumption that school leaders are paid to work longer hours than everyone else. In fact, they are paid for the responsibility they have agreed to take on rather than for the hours that they work. They invest a significant amount of time supporting other staff, yet often they have no-one that they can turn to when they require support. It can be difficult for school leaders to admit that they are struggling in case disclosures of this kind result in questions being raised about their effectiveness. However, at the end of the day, school leaders are only human. They are not machines. They have a right to a balanced workload and to dedicated time away from their jobs if they are to retain their effectiveness. Relying on support from the Chair of Governors can be problematic because the relationship is not equal; they are accountable to their Chair.

School leaders are also extremely vulnerable. Most are well aware that they are only as good as their last set of results or their last inspection. They will have witnessed other leaders being ousted from their jobs. Some will have been escorted off the premises and sent on ‘gardening leave’, pending investigations. Some may never return to education. Those who do return may have to accept a demotion. Some school leaders may be forced to take on casual supply work. Many school leaders know that they are not guaranteed a job for life and this sense of instability can have a detrimental affect on their mental health. All school leaders are vulnerable to false allegations, resistance and abuse from staff, parents and students. Resilience is context-specific and it therefore varies from one situation to another. For some leaders, one damaging incident can be enough to tip them ‘over the edge’.

It is obvious that a healthy lifestyle will benefit school leaders. However, high workloads can sometimes restrict opportunities for exercise and lead to an unhealthy diet. Governors should, therefore, take responsibility for addressing this issue by ensuring that school leaders have reasonable workloads. Our research in this area (Glazzard & Stones, 2020) suggests that informal opportunities for school leaders to meet with other school leaders for mutual support could equally be beneficial and this is something which employers should facilitate. School leaders also value professional learning and development which is led by other school leaders rather than by consultants (Glazzard & Stones, 2020). It is more powerful to listen to a peer who has ‘been there, done it and bought the T-shirt’ rather than someone who has no experience, or outdated experience, of working within a similar professional context.

In addition, our research demonstrates that school leaders can also benefit from professional supervision. Although professional supervision is common in professions such as health and social care, it has been insufficiently utilised in education despite the fact that leaders are often addressing complex issues and making life-changing decisions about children and young people on a daily basis. Through matching leaders to external professional supervisors, this provides a confidential space for leaders to discuss their work with someone who is both unconnected to the organisation and not responsible for managing their performance. Having someone to talk to, who understands the challenges, can significantly improve the mental health of school leaders and facilitate their retention (Glazzard & Stones, 2020).

The displacement of school leaders from education is a concern. Issues of workload and excessive accountability can result in burnout and poor mental health. School leaders play a critical role in school improvement. They change the life chances of children and young people. They are often motivated by a sense of moral purpose i.e. a drive to help young people to achieve to the highest level regardless of their background or other circumstances. Current policies should therefore address the issues of accountability and workloads of school leaders.

Jonathan Glazzard is Professor of Inclusive Education, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University. Samuel Stones is Associate Researcher, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University. They are authors of  Positive Mental Health for School Leaders published in January 2020 by Critical Publishing. 

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