Studies show that the work of school leaders is becoming increasingly demanding and growing numbers are experiencing burnout and leaving the profession. We know that leaders in most major developed countries generally have much poorer levels of wellbeing than employees and are likely to experience almost double the levels of burnout of other workers. Research with international school leaders, both pre- and mid-pandemic, found participants struggling to cope with the demands of their role, with as many as three-quarters reporting that work-related stress negatively impacts their health.
We know that the quality of leadership in schools is the second most important school-based factor in determining student outcomes. We also have decades of evidence to show that healthy employees are more effective in their work, have higher rates of productivity and performance, and lower rates of absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover. Yet around half of international school leaders say that work-related stress affects their ability to do their job well.
Burnout as a Continuum
While not all school leaders burn out, it is important to understand that burnout is a continuum upon which all employees lie. At one end of the continuum is engagement and at the other burnout, while in between workers can be overextended, detached, or ineffective. During their working life, school leaders move up and down this continuum, depending on the demands of their current role and their ability to cope with those demands. The aim for any school leader is to sustain their leadership for the period of a whole career, which may be many decades. To do this, they need to remain as much as possible at the engagement end of the continuum.
Burnout as a Workplace Condition
Research clearly shows that burnout is a workplace condition, rather than an individual failure. Employees move along the burnout continuum towards burnout when there are imbalances in one or more of six areas of work life, creating unmitigated stress. For school leaders, the most significant of these is an imbalance in community, caused by poor workplace relationships, lack of support, and isolation. The second most significant is workload, both quantitative and emotional, while the third is lack of control. Employees may also experience imbalances in rewards, values, and fairness. School leaders have a better chance of remaining at the engagement end of the burnout continuum if their workplace provides them with supportive relationships, a manageable workload, and autonomy over how they organize their work and make decisions.
The Loneliness of International School Leaders
For international school leaders, the quality of their community is key in determining levels of wellbeing. Strong and supportive collegial relationships have been found to mitigate the impact of work-related stress, while social exclusion in the workplace is proven to be more damaging to health than bullying. Professional and personal loneliness are very real issues for international school leaders, who often lack traditional support networks. In a pre-pandemic study, two-thirds of international school leaders said they found living and working outside of their home country to be emotionally challenging, with isolation being a major factor. The Loneliness of the International School Leader remains my most popular article to date.
Workload and Control
Discussions on workload often focus on working hours, yet the emotional demands of an individual’s work are just as important in influencing their stress levels. Ninety-seven percent of international school leaders report that leading international schools is emotionally challenging work. The crucial role that these leaders play in supporting students, staff, and parents places considerable demands on leaders, while the diverse nature of the community and the role of transition have been shown to bring additional strain.
Although we think of international schools as having greater autonomy than those in the public sector, lack of control can be a significant issue for international school leaders. The self-managing nature of international schools places more emphasis on the role of governance and the relationships between boards and senior leadership. Lack of clarity or overlap between the roles of the school leadership team and the board can create an atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and ill-feeling, which may seriously impact a leader’s wellbeing. Micro-management by the board of governors remains one of the main reasons that international school leaders leave their schools.
While the headlines around school leader wellbeing mainly focus on those working in the state school sector, the experience of leading an international school is very intense. The responsibilities placed on leaders can go well beyond what may be experienced in a domestic setting. This, coupled with the reduced personal and professional support available, can render international school leaders particularly vulnerable to high levels of stress and potential burnout.
In the second of this three-part series, I will discuss how international schools can take a strategic approach to improve the working conditions of their leaders, help support their wellbeing, and prevent burnout.
Dr. Helen Kelly is an expert in the field of leader and staff wellbeing and workplace culture. She led international schools in Asia and Europe for 15 years until she retired from her work as a principal in 2020. She has been conducting research in the field of educator wellbeing for a decade. Prior to becoming an educator, she spent ten years as a lawyer in the field of workplace health and safety.
From this diverse experience, Helen brings a unique and valuable perspective to her work as an author, consultant, and speaker. She draws upon her understanding of the needs of school communities, her knowledge of evidenced-based practices, and her legal background to deliver approaches that are strategic, effective, and have long-term impacts on individual wellbeing and workplace culture.
She is the author of the new book School Leaders Matter: Preventing Burnout, Managing Stress, and Improving Wellbeing.