‘ I haven’t eaten today. I’ve got no time for lunch’ Senior Leader Wellbeing: Headsup4HTs Thinkpiece (Published October 2021)

We are nearing the end of a challenging and taxing half term- we all know the score by now: the dark mornings and afternoons and the feeling that time, instead of being on our side, is actually our enemy. There’s just never enough of it. For senior leaders, this pinch point is all too clear- the mental exhaustion comes from balancing everything from the strategic to the seemingly trivial, managing budgets of millions of pounds one minute and then managing the Year 8 lunch queue the next. The toll on our brains and bodies becomes evident at this stage in the year, but it’s this time where our colleagues really look to us to see something completely different. 

The only answer for senior leaders seems to be to work harder, for longer. We eek out the day wherever we can, sacrifice precious moments and time with friends and family, sacrifice break and lunchtimes in a desperate attempt to catch up and to squeeze everything in. Unused gym memberships, broken social engagements with friends and fatigue beyond words becomes the norm. You forget your body’s need to fuel and refuel during the day, because even eating or drinking a glass of water gets added to the bottom of your growing to-do list. 

This would be the case if this was an ordinary year, but it isn’t- for so many reasons this year is extraordinary. But even so, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed here in order to ensure that senior workload is manageable and that we are able to serve the teachers and colleagues in our schools to the best of our ability. 

Being in leadership is a public affair- you’re on show, performing, walking the walk during every waking working moment. In our cars being the last on the staff carpark, in working through lunchtimes and breaktimes we are sending a message, loud and clear to future generations of senior leaders that in order to retain your position and be proficient in your role, work has to be prioritised ahead of your own health and wellbeing. 

We need to shift that narrative, to stop promoting martyrdom as a glamorous pursuit. To stop telling colleagues what time we shut the laptop the night before. 

This is easier said than done, particularly if it’s all that our colleagues have ever seen or all that’s been promoted by their leaders. As an NQT, I remember feeling the weight of expectation when I and 12 other colleagues were asked to prepare a presentation, summarising our learning for the year. We spent weeks preparing, trying to source the time around planning our lessons and learning how to be teachers. In the end, we decided it would be best to just stay in school until it was done. We camped out in a computer room until around 9:30pm, ordered pizza and planned for our lives. After we had done our presentation to the whole staff the day after, we were praised for our dedication and the additional hours we had spent putting the work together- we were congratulated on the sacrifices we had made. 

I don’t remember exactly what was in that presentation but I do remember that that experience created an unhealthy work ethic that I still battle against, 12 years later. 

I’m more and more aware now of the language I use around my impressionable colleagues, and I’m trying more consciously to ensure they don’t perceive me as somebody who can fit a week’s worth of work into a day. 

The key here is in developing those around us more successfully and modelling the sort of leadership behaviours we would want to see in them. A greater focus on distributing leadership capacity into middle leader posts is crucial in building sustainable change and in ensuring the healthy working habits of future leaders. Developing opportunities to have honest and candid conversations about the challenges of managing your time at senior level is so important. 

In 12 years time, I hope that the next Assistant Head says they learnt from somebody who made time for their lunch, drank plenty of water and picked up their child rather than their laptop in the evenings. That’s when we will know we’ve been successful. 

Headsup4HTs is a brilliant organisation that supports senior leaders and headteachers, through peer support, advice and training. Find out more about the team here: https://www.headsup4hts.co.uk/support/

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