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New Survey Reveals Worrying Levels of Stress Among International School Leaders

By Dr. Helen Kelly
New Survey Reveals Worrying Levels of Stress Among International School Leaders

Back in September, I wrote about the increased levels of stress experienced by international school leaders since the start of the pandemic. I lamented that there was no hard data yet but referred instead to a wealth of anecdotal evidence emerging from schools around the world.

In October, I set out to address this absence of hard data by conducting my own study. I distributed a 37-question survey via educational leadership groups on a variety of social media platforms. The response was excellent, with 721 leaders completing the survey, 10% of whom worked in international schools.

While the sample is modest and response bias is always a consideration, we do now have hard data on the experiences shared by some international school leaders during 2020. The findings provide a snapshot of the pressures of leading international schools during an unprecedented global health and economic crisis.

It is clear from the study that respondents are experiencing increased stress as a result of the pandemic. 87% of respondents reported increased stress levels, while 77% described their current stress levels as between high and extremely high. 50% said they currently experienced stressful events or situations on at least a daily basis. 

Causes of Increased Stress

While we know that the experience of school leaders varies enormously across different contexts, a number of common themes emerged from the study in relation to the causes of stress. The most significant stressor for many leaders was the sheer volume of logistical problems to be solved on a daily and weekly basis. These included the challenges of implementing an effective online learning program, particularly for Early Years students; the complex health and safety procedures necessary to bring students and staff back to school, combined with challenges of staff absences  and the juggling of blended learning models. One head described the stresses involved with “making sure we systematically offer the best program and support for all, from the students quarantined locally, those on campus, those quarantined remotely and those who have not made it back yet.”

These logistical problems were often further impacted by insufficient or contradictory guidance from governments. One head referred to how “typically decisions are made for local schools and then negotiated for international schools. So dealing with miscommunication from the authorities is challenging and this is an area we have very little control over.” 

Dealing with the unrealistic and contradictory expectations of different stakeholder groups was also a major stressor for leaders. Respondents described the challenges of  balancing parent expectations with what overwhelmed staff can realistically offer and trying to encourage unsympathetic boards to understand  the limitations of what can be achieved with an exhausted staff. Sadly, some reported a level of hostility among some parents, with one describing “the level of judgement and critique that our teachers have been subjected to and the sometimes threatening behavior from frustrated, and often desperate families.”

Managing the emotional needs of others was another major theme emerging from the study. 84% of leaders said they were supporting others’ emotional needs more since the start of the pandemic, with parents and teaching staff representing by far the most needy groups.

Addressing parental anxieties about the safe return to school and supporting distressed parents who were juggling working from home and home learning for their child/ren was a common stressor.

Others referred to the challenge of supporting educators’ needs, describing staff as “distressed,” “overwhelmed,” “burnt out,” and “drained.” One leader described a situation where “the emotional wellbeing of everyone was hanging in the balance when SLT chose to cancel the October holiday 10 days before it was due to start.”

When asked about how they were coping with the increased stress, few leaders felt they were coping well, describing the workload as “relentless and completely unsustainable” with “no down time to recover.” The struggle of balancing their own and their families’ needs with those of school came through strongly, with many feeling they were unable to do both well. One leader described how she had been managing “at home with my three-year-old, whilst still supporting my staff and dealing with complaining parents who won’t let up.” Another shared how “when we returned to school staff anxiety was high due to having COVID in the building but by this point my cup was full and I was not able to deal with their anxiety and my own.”  55% of leaders said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020. 

Reassuringly, a large number (59%) of respondents found healthy lifestyle choices to be the most effective coping strategy, although only 20% felt they were getting enough sleep.  Hobbies and interests (53%) and connecting with others (45%) were also found to be effective ways to cope. Only 33% said that they are relying on passive coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs and food, which, while far from ideal, was lower than in the total school leader population surveyed, where it was 48%. Sadly, a small number of leaders shared that they had no time to employ any coping strategies.

It is clear from the findings that leaders feel unsupported. Only 38% reported receiving  sufficient practical support at school, while even less (29%) felt they had adequate emotional support. Many leaders would like more support from within school, including from senior colleagues (21%), teaching staff (32%), and the board (24%). While some referred to receiving support from leadership colleagues in other schools, 41% said they would like opportunities to connect more with other leaders for support and coaching. Many leaders (30%) also expressed a desire for professional coaching. 

While 41% of international school leaders said their training had prepared them for the current crisis, many identified the need for improved training. 43% would like crisis management training, 31% want stress management training and 47% would like training to help them support the emotional needs of others.  

While an end to the pandemic may finally be in sight, with the development of effective vaccines, it is likely to be many months before the world returns to normal. School leaders need more support and regular opportunities to recover if they are to sustain effective leadership through to the end of the crisis. It is hardly surprising that 50% expressed a need to simply have more time to attend to their own needs. Schools need to find ways to make this happen or they are at risk of burning their leaders out. 

Helen Kelly is a former international school principal, now independent researcher, writer and speaker. She is known for her work in the field of school wellbeing with a special focus on school leader stress. Since retiring from her work in schools in July 2020, Helen has been based in beautiful North Wales.

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12/24/2020 - David
Thank you for this Helen. It’s good to know I am not alone. School leadership can be very stressful and it is essential that this is recognised.
We are often so busy making sure all other stakeholders are OK that we forget about our own well-being.
Happy Christmas and let’s hope 2021 is better.
12/15/2020 - JenBen
I'm glad you've compiled this with stats that can be shared. Our Leadership is inclined to be self effacing, take it on the nose and encourage us with Onward ho! I hope they too read this.
12/11/2020 - Dr Helen Kelly
Hi Anu
Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate your support for my work. I would be happy to connect with you. Please email me at [email protected]
12/11/2020 - Dr Helen Kelly
Thanks for your comment. My primary field is school leader wellbeing so I have started this current round of research there. Everyone is struggling at the moment and I’m trying to do my bit for the profession by highlighting the struggles of school leaders. To highlight their plight doesn’t diminish in any way the struggles of teachers.

I am a post doctoral researcher and I am very careful to follow a correct methodology but we always need to be aware of a response bias when using a survey of this kind. I’ll address this in my full report when it is published later this month. I’m not aware of flaws in my analysis but I am happy to answer any questions about the data. You can email me on [email protected]
12/10/2020 - Rachael
I find it incredibly tone deaf that you have chosen to write about the plight of leadership instead of focusing on teachers during this trying time. Also, your statistical “analysis” is flawed.
12/10/2020 - Anu
I totally agree with you,love reading your articles.
Can we connect.
Warm regards.