Educational leaders’ wellbeing: “Putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others”

5 principles that support the wellbeing of educational leaders. By Lucy Lindley

The wellbeing of those in education has become a popular topic over the past few years. You only need to look at recent headlines to understand why – for example, it is reported that 1 in 20 teachers have mental health problems that have lasted more than a year (Nuffield Foundation, 2020), and more than half of all education professionals have considered leaving the sector over the past 2 years due to pressures on their health and wellbeing (Education Support Partnership, 2019).

In response to this, recent government initiatives have placed greater emphasis on the wellbeing of education professionals. For example, staff wellbeing is now appraised as part of Ofsted’s inspection framework, and the Department for Education (DfE) has launched a new expert advisory group. This builds upon previous guidance published by the DfE, which recommends developing a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing. Although educational leaders have been recognised to play a key role in this, they are rarely asked about their own wellbeing. To address this gap, I invited educational leaders to take part in a research interview.

So, what did I learn from asking educational leaders to talk about their own experiences of wellbeing?

1. Make time for self-reflection

Despite its popularity, there is no universally agreed definition of wellbeing. Instead, people make sense of what wellbeing means to them by reflecting on their own experiences and understanding of the concept.

In this study, the educational leaders were prompted to explore the topic of wellbeing with a researcher. Outside a research setting, one common method for encouraging self-reflection is writing in a journal, but this is by no means the only way. What is important is taking the time to introspectively ask yourself some key questions, such as:

  • How do I feel today?
  • Do I consider my current level of wellbeing to be low or high?
  • What aspects of the self (e.g. thoughts, feelings, behaviours) have contributed to this?
  • What external factors (e.g. the environment, interactions with others) have played a role?

You can answer these questions by writing; by talking to a partner, colleague or professional coach; or by thinking while sitting, walking or even running. The practice of self-reflection is said to help you learn and develop a better understanding of yourself. In this instance, it could help identify what wellbeing means to you, as well as the ways in which you can support it (see Dr Lucy Kelly’s work on ‘reclaiming teacher wellbeing through reflective diary-writing’). Notably, this current study demonstrated that it is not necessary to have experienced both low and high levels of wellbeing to hold beliefs about what that may look or feel like.

2. Be flexible

What wellbeing means and feels like for one person may be very different to another person’s experience. It is therefore important that flexibility is exercised when it comes to promoting your own or other people’s levels of wellbeing:

  • Individuals should avoid striving for a specific manifestation of wellbeing and instead, work out what works best for them.
  • Educational leaders need to implement wellbeing initiatives that offer individuals the flexibility to participate in a way that supports them.
  • Educational policies need to be positioned in a way that gives educational leaders the autonomy and flexibility to implement processes that work both for themselves and those they lead.

This flexibility emphasises the multi-faceted nature of wellbeing. One common model of wellbeing – Seligman’s ‘PERMA’ model – suggests that wellbeing comprises of five different dimensions (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment). A flexible approach will allow individuals to choose to focus on the dimensions of wellbeing that are most important to them, whether that is building a support network or working towards a goal of their choice.

3. Strive for balance

Although people experience wellbeing in different ways, high levels of wellbeing are often described as feeling balanced. Crucially, this balance does not simply refer to a reduced workload. Instead, ‘balance’ may mean:

  • Balancing time between work and non-work (a phrase suggested by one participant, who refuted that it was a work-life balance as work is part of her life too).
  • Taking part in leisure activities outside of work, such as swimming or choir.
  • Celebrating that educational leaders are also people with full lives outside the school gates.
  • Choosing to spend time in school during the holidays to help promote a sense of control.
  • Working from home one day a term to take space to focus.
  • Having the time to experience the ‘nice’ parts of the job, such as spending time with pupils.
  • Feeling the demands of their job role is balanced with their ability to do it.

Ultimately, a balanced life allows people to distribute their attention, energy, time and resources as they desire. To help sustain this balance and higher levels of wellbeing, it is recommended that individuals find ways to aid themselves in achieving balance in their everyday life.

4. Take action

In this study, the educational leaders perceived wellbeing as their own responsibility and something they should actively promote. Although the approaches varied, each leader demonstrated that they were adopting strategies in line with the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, summarised below.

  • Connect…The educational leaders were connecting to those around them through the use of Twitter, group activities, and role modelling positivity and other behaviours that help promote their wellbeing.
  • Be active… Examples of physical activities included cycling, running and swimming.
  • Take notice… This action was expressed as being mindful. For example, one participant described pausing to take notice of the beautiful scenery he passes through on his commute. He noted that this awareness extends to those around him, as he notices and comments on colleagues’ small changes (such as a haircut or new shirt).   
  • Keep learning… The educational leaders were continuing to learn through various forms of CPD, both formal (e.g. conferences) and informal (e.g. reflecting on their practice with colleagues). One participant noted that you keep learning throughout life and offers the example of learning to become a better runner.
  • Give… This action was depicted as volunteering time and support, for example, coaching other leaders through challenging circumstances and volunteering for a local hockey club.

On Twitter, the#teacher5adaycampaign encourages educators to utilise these five actions to promote their own wellbeing.  Using the hashtag, educators share examples from their own lives, which helps raise awareness of the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ and the ways in which educator wellbeing can be supported.

To promote higher levels of wellbeing, it is recommended that individuals ask themselves what they have control over, and which of the five actions they want to explore to support their wellbeing.

5. Lead by example

The educational leaders were leading by example in relation to promoting and maintaining higher levels of wellbeing. It should be noted that leading by example (or ‘idealised influence’) is one of Bass’ four key transformational leadership behaviours, a type of leadership commonly associated with high follower wellbeing (see Bowers (2019) for a review). 

This leadership behaviour can be demonstrated in various ways, including:

  • Modelling behaviours that support wellbeing, such as maintaining balance and engaging in leisure activities. This is grounded in Bandura’s social learning theory, which posits that individuals learn from observing those around them.
  • Making use of the ‘emotional contagion’, which is the phenomenon where observing one person’s emotions and related behaviours can lead to exhibiting a congruent emotional state. In this study, educational leaders strived to be positive and calm around those they lead (often described as their work persona or ‘mask’).
  • Communicating that wellbeing is a priority from the top-down. In this study, one educational leader used the oxygen mask analogy (‘put your oxygen mask on first’) to encourage his staff to support their own wellbeing, before helping others.

The educational leaders who participated in this study noted that leading by example helped support their own wellbeing too.

Conclusion

In summary, it is essential that educational leaders are encouraged to ‘put their own oxygen mask on first’. After all, a leader who promotes their own wellbeing can have a positive influence both on themselves and those they lead. In the field of education, this can reflect increased teacher motivation, commitment and job satisfaction, which in turn, is associated with improved pupil outcomes. As such, investing in the wellbeing of educational leaders can have a significant impact on a multitude of levels: from the individual, to the classroom and school system as a whole.

Technical note

This blog is based on research carried out by Lucy Lindley for the Master’s in Research qualification at the University of Portsmouth. Five semi-structured interviews were carried out with educational leaders who expressed that they had personally experienced high levels of wellbeing. Their narratives were analysed in-line with the theoretical underpinnings of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), a qualitative methodology that encourages close engagement with each participant’s lived experience.