Role-modelling wellbeing as a busy leader
Role modelling good staff wellbeing is about building relationships, showing you are human, admitting you are wrong and seeking your own support when needed.
If mental and emotional health becomes a cultural priority at your school, then everyone learns, works and grows together. And cultural change has to start from the top.
Articles / 9 mins read
Emotionally healthy teachers and education staff make effective learning possible. If mental and emotional health becomes a cultural priority at your school, then everyone learns, works and grows together. The truth is that healthier, happier staff stay part of your school community for longer (that includes you too).
For school leaders, the pressure is real and unrelenting. Even if you are not adversely concerned about external scrutiny and league tables, the load we put on ourselves to ensure we are doing the best possible job for the pupils in our care, is often a cause of anxiety. I heard the phrase whilst undertaking my NPQH, ‘you’re paid to smile’. Yes, in many instances you have a level of responsibility to be outwardly positive and to protect staff from sometimes difficult information that they need not be subjected to.
But role modelling good staff wellbeing is not about unwavering positivity in the face of adversity. It is about building relationships, showing you are human, admitting when you are wrong and seeking your own support when needed. It’s also remembering that it is okay to show vulnerability as a leader, and that cultural change such as this has to start from the top.
Why invest in your wellbeing as a leader?
In recent months I have met many headteachers. Many are considering how long they can continue at their current pace of work. Their own wellbeing has taken a backseat when considering all the day-to-day issues that arise in their schools. All are passionate about serving their school community. There is little room for even considering personal wellbeing, let alone acting on it. When you invest in your own wellbeing, you are:
- Role modelling healthy wellbeing habits to staff.
- Creating a safe space in school for anyone to talk about their mental health.
- Building a mentally healthy school, which in turn will increase staff retention and pupil progress.
- Putting yourself first to enable you to have a longer tenure with no danger of burnout.
Many headteachers have enlisted the help of a coach. This has really helped them in a role where there are not many people to talk to objectively about the pressures of the job. That extra layer of ‘wellbeing accountability’ is also very useful as setting and achieving wellbeing targets. These are as important as any other school target.
Education Support offers professional supervision which gives you a safe and confidential space to talk about, and process what is going on for you at work.
Watch this video to find out more about professional supervision.
Home truths activity
In order to start this journey of personal self-reflection, I would recommend stepping off the work treadmill for a few hours and undertaking some self-work. Find a quiet environment where you don’t feel the need to do anything else (i.e. not at work or home). Finding a spot in nature, a library or a religious building is the perfect space to start to look at your own wellbeing a bit more objectively.
Take a journal for this activity and ask yourself questions such as:
- When was the last time I put my needs first at home or school?
- What are my actual percentages when it comes to work/life balance (excluding sleeping time)?
- Who in my personal life is missing out as a result of my workload?
- What do I do each week to bring myself joy?
- How can I communicate to my staff the difficulties myself and other school leaders are facing?
- How can I continue to work towards a school where wellbeing is at the heart?
Once you start this exercise, even if you were in two minds, you will be surprised at what comes out. In your journal, you can be brutally honest as no one else will read it. If you write the first thing that comes to mind It’s generally the truth and sometimes a perspective you hadn’t considered as your intuition takes over from your ego!
How can I be my authentic self?
Like anything, this takes practise and actually, our authentic ‘work’ self may differ slightly from our personal life. The core of being our authentic selves, is doing what feels right and not undertaking tasks or behaving in a certain way just to please others. Taking the ‘mask’ off can be a challenge. We have all conditioned ourselves to act a particular way at work. With so many expectations, this ‘mask’ we put on can protect us to some extent when making difficult decisions. The way to gradually ease yourself back towards your authentic self, is to explore your core values as a leader and ensure that you are leading with these at the heart of everything you do. I have witnessed colleagues evolve in their outward personalities as they received promotions. Some colleagues, unfortunately, strayed too far from the heart-centred teachers they once were. Largely due to perceived ideas of what was expected of them and external influences such as impending inspection.
My suggestion would be as far as possible, to forget the external influences (easier said than done!) and focus on your staff so that they can effectively focus on the children. More recently, we have a much better understanding of wellbeing in the workplace and moving forward, I feel there will be less room for non heart-centred leadership. When considering retention of staff, staff will vote with their feet. It doesn’t have to be a sudden shift, if you wish to change your leadership style, then evolve it slowly changing one element at a time. These gradual shifts, will lead to improved embedding of the leadership style you want to have.
Showing vulnerability as a leader
This concept can be terrifying for a leader and involves a careful balance of showing your authentic side yet still ensuring that you are clearly still in control of the situation! So many organisations both in and outside of education are facing enormous challenges right now but I wonder how many leaders have let their staff know the extent of the issues and have been open to a candid dialogue on what the school or organisation can do moving forward.
The sociologist Brené Brown, has researched this area extensively and if you haven’t watched her Ted Talk on the subject of vulnerability, I would highly recommend it as well as her book, Daring Greatly (2015). Her message is that vulnerability is also critically important to performance. If you don't have the skill or aren't putting in the effort, you're only going to be able to perform to a certain level. However, once you get to that level, it's the vulnerability that takes you higher and creates a space for authentic leaders to allow others a view into their heads. If you can role model vulnerability, then it allows others to feel that they can be open and vulnerable as well. This in turn leads to a more heart-centred and cohesive organisation.
Being truthful and sharing that you don’t have all the answers can be essential for workforce ‘buy-in’. This approach builds trust and relationships as opposed to a ‘them and us’ situation. If you don’t know what to do in a situation, it doesn’t mean you’re failing as a leader. If you ask for staff input, it shows you are open to ideas. This will also help build a school with wellbeing at its heart. Once this culture is embedded, if you’re having a tough time and you can voice your concerns, then your team will rally around to support you. Like anything, if your school is currently the opposite of this, it won’t happen overnight and the process needs to evolve over time.
Top tips for this process:
- Start asking for more collective dialogue on whole school issues and openly act on advice from staff.
- Share challenges factually without exaggeration.
- Keep reiterating the importance of the school staff team and how you are all working together to evolve the staff team and school in becoming even stronger.
- Say thank you regularly.
- Use the first person e.g. ‘I believe in you’ or, ‘I want to hear your ideas’.
of staff would not be confident in disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their employer
The mentally healthy school
The process of showing vulnerability as a leader all forms part of being a mentally healthy school. Currently, more than half of staff (57%) would not be confident in disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their employer (Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021). The first task in showing your vulnerability as a leader, could indeed be to start addressing this important area by getting a school wellbeing charter in place. According to the Wellbeing index, 61% of respondents stated they did not receive sufficient guidance from their school surrounding mental health. This number is too high.
The government has produced a wellbeing charter to support schools navigating this area. It will allow school leaders to:
- Show staff that you take their wellbeing seriously.
- Open a conversation with staff about their wellbeing and mental health.
- Create a staff wellbeing strategy.
- Create a wellbeing-focused culture.
This charter, also sends the message that your wellbeing matters as well.
Busting wellbeing myths
Within my work supporting schools and individuals with their wellbeing journeys, I have come across several common themes:
Role modelling wellbeing is not…
- A bolt-on that can simply be addressed through an annual survey.
- Something left to a ‘wellbeing committee’ that has a small budget to organise social activities and staffroom cake.
- Possible to embed effectively if it is not led from the top of the organisation.
- Oversharing when it comes to personal issues.
- Assuming that staff will say something if they are not happy and if they don’t come, they must be happy. Leaders need to actively seek this information.
Role modelling wellbeing is…
- Not difficult and can be incorporated easily into everyday life
- Involves you as the leader to be your authentic, vulnerable and heart-centred self.
- Dropping your perfectionist persona and admitting to, as well as not being afraid of, making mistakes.
- Identifying and sharing that everyone's wellbeing is important in your organisation.
- Ensuring effective communication throughout the school as this always comes up as a barrier to wellbeing.
I hope that these points go some way in supporting you and your school to continue your wellbeing journey and also support you on your personal development when it comes to your own wellbeing and showing vulnerability. Education Support is always on hand to provide guidance where needed and can also help with professional supervision as mentioned above in order to explore these themes on a deeper individual level.
Lynn How is the Editor at Teacher Toolkit. With 20 years of primary teaching and SLT experience, she has been an Assistant Head, Lead Mentor for ITT and SENCO. She loves to write and also has her own SEMH and staff mental health blog. Lynn holds an MA in Education, NASENCO and NPQH. Her particular areas of interest are wellbeing (staff and pupil), SEND, children's mental health, leadership, mentoring and coaching. Recently she has started an Educational Consultancy business for SEND (SEND support) and Teacher Wellbeing (The Wellbeing Lady). You can find her teacher coaching group on Facebook; a group for those wishing to improve their work life balance in school