School leaders – do you make time to talk?

Taking time to talk about how you’re doing might help you stay well in the long run. It might help you build the resilience to meet the demands of your role, and have enough energy to meet the range of expectations you’re juggling. 

Articles / 7 mins read

How many people have you talked to today? 

As a school leader, it’s probably quite a few: a colleague with a question about the latest Covid guidance, then a pupil with challenges at home. Perhaps you’ve had a heated conversation with a parent or two, followed by a quick call with your Chair of Governors? And that’s all before midday. 

Conversations keep things running. They can establish connections, but can also be fraught. They can be energising and inspiring, but can also be draining. That’s a lot to experience before midday.

Do you ever pause to ask yourself how you’re feeling? Who do you turn to if you start to feel the weight of your daily interactions? 

We know from our Teacher Wellbeing Index that school leaders are most at risk of acute stress, insomnia and exhaustion. We also know that you’re the most likely to have your own coping strategies in place, and these are more likely to exist outside of your school. 

Whatever your experience, taking time to make space to talk about how you’re doing might help you stay well in the long run. It might help you build the resilience to meet the demands of your role, and have enough energy to meet the range of expectations you’re juggling. 

In this article, we’ll look at the potential benefits for school leaders and other education staff of talking openly about emotions, feelings, and mental health challenges. We will also discuss the types of professional talking therapies available to help turn things around. But first…

What’s the evidence?

Studies have shown that talking about your experiences and sharing emotions with a sympathetic other person can be a healing process. It can reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and soothe both mental distress and physical ailments (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).

Talking about your experiences (as opposed to just thinking them over alone) has been shown to help give them shape. This may allow you to turn abstract feelings into something more tangible, which you can better understand.

Once you understand the structure and meaning of your experiences you can gain a sense control and better manage your emotions (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). For school leaders this could mean building confidence and emotional resilience to further support students and colleagues.  

Talking to someone can also help you to label your emotions, which may allow you to understand them and let them go  (Esterling, L’Abate, Murray, & Pennebaker, 1999; Swinkels & Giuliano, 1995).

There is plenty of evidence that points to the long lasting effects of talking therapies and studies indicate that the expression of emotion can lead to positive outcomes such as better mental and physical health. Long-term, talking therapies can even help rewire your brain to deal more effectively with future challenges in the classroom or at home. (Lyubomirsky et al., 2006; 166 Empirical Studies of the Arts 36(2) Pennebaker & Beall, 1986;).

 

84%

of senior leaders are stressed

84%

of senior leaders experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work

Why talk? 

We know from our Teacher Wellbeing Index that school leaders, teachers, and education staff have been under pressure since way before the pandemic. Then COVID-19 arrived and compounded these challenges. 

For school leaders in particular, dealing with the added responsibilities and pressures of this challenging period, you’re most at risk of burnout.   

Processing feelings effectively can be a great way to balance mental wellbeing, and relieve some of the pressure that can lead to burnout in the long run. But talking about our feelings isn’t appealing for everyone, especially if we believe our professional lives require us to be seen as incredibly strong or bullet-proof. 

Things to remember: 

  • Being open about attending to your feelings sets a great example to everyone around you. This might encourage them to talk through their own experiences, and create a more supportive environment where discussing feelings is completely normal. 
  • Ignoring or bottling up your own feelings is exhausting. It may also lead to other kinds of coping behaviours, like comfort eating, drinking too much or being irritable at home or work. Facing our feelings may help us to carry things more lightly, and lead to improved resilience in our daily lives. 
  • Feelings aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They carry messages that help us understand our lives and experiences. By spending time examining them, we might find new perspectives or ways of approaching challenging situations. 
  • When we open up it can release feel good brain chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin. Put simply, talking (and being listened to) can make you feel better, but it can also help us feel more connected to people, and help improve relationships. 

 

Types of talking therapies

If you decide that talking is the right route for you there are many different ways to do this. 

There is no one approach or talking therapy that works for everyone. You may spend some time discovering what style works best for you, which might mean trying a couple of options before finding the right fit. 

The NHS has a great guide to all types of talking therapy, and here’s a brief overview of the types of services you can try: 

Short-term counselling: If you’re dealing with a specific issue, short-term counselling might work for you. You can agree on an issue to address and a set number of sessions with a counsellor. You can look at the BACP’s directory to find a counsellor to work with. 

Psychotherapy: For ongoing issues, or just creating a regular, ongoing space to process your experiences, you might consider longer term psychotherapy. There are many different types of psychotherapists, who are trained using different theoretical frameworks. Many therapists, however, say that their theoretical approaches are less important than building a trusted relationship with their clients. Focusing on whether you feel you can work with an individual therapist might be a good place to start if you don’t have a preference for a particular style of therapy. Again, the BACP offers guidance on finding the right therapist for your needs, with a directory of accredited professionals to choose from.

Online or phone support: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many therapy services have moved online or are being offered over the phone. This has many benefits, including making it easier to fit your choice of therapy around your work and other commitments, and being less intimidating than starting face to face work. Education Support has a dedicated phone counselling service for school leaders, which offers six free one-to-one sessions over the telephone with an accredited counsellor. We also have a helpline which is available to everyone working in education – call 08000 562 561. Phone lines are great, as they offer the help you need, when you need it, but you don’t get the benefit of building a trusting relationship, as you do by seeing the same counsellor on a regular basis. 

Peer Support Groups: These informal support groups bring together people united in a theme, whether it’s an AA or NA chapter, a group of people with the same mental health diagnosis, or a group who share the same job role. Education Support has an online peer support group dedicated to helping school leaders, where you can take part in six 90-minute sessions in a group of six or seven, run by a professional facilitator who is a trained coach with experience of working within the education sector. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): aims to change behaviours by examining thought patterns that have been learned over time. You’ll usually have a limited number of sessions and work towards a clear goal to learn new ways of thinking and doing. CBT is available through your GP and commonly prescribed by GPs for people experiencing anxiety and depression.  You may have to wait for an initial appointment if you go via the NHS, but can also be accessed privately. Mind, the mental health charity, has a really useful page dedicated to CBT.   

Give yourself time

Talking more openly to others about how you’re feeling may feel uncomfortable at first – especially if you’re not used to showing a more vulnerable side. Start by taking small steps until your confidence grows and try different approaches until you find what works best for you. At first it might be useful to write down your feelings before a conversation or you could try booking in a specific time to talk.

Finally, remember you’re not alone. It’s likely your colleagues will experience (or already have) the same emotions at some point in their career.

Talk to us
If you need to talk then we’re here for you 24/7. Anyone working in education can call our free and confidential helpline on 08000 562 561 and speak to a qualified counsellor. Call us, we’ll listen.

View guide sources

Employee Assistance Programme
Employee Assistance Programme
School leaders' support
School leaders' support
An introduction to wellbeing and resilience
Wellbeing and resilience workshop