Emotional resilience and burnout

These results from TeacherTapp last week concerning school leaders’ likelihood of burnout made me pause and reflect on the insights I have gained from the many school leaders who have allowed me a window into their world.

TeacherTapp on leaders

‘I had to stop in a layby every day on my way to school to be sick’, she told a group of us at a conference. She spoke with little emotion, as though there was nothing unusual about her body’s extreme reaction to a particularly challenging headship.

Many stories told to me in confidence verify that headship can lead to burnout – and that’s in ordinary times.

The way in which CEOs and headteachers have responded to the demands of Covid19 has been awe-inspiring. In many cases they have reasserted schools’ position at the heart of their local community. In the absence of clear and timely guidance from higher authority, they have taken control of the agenda and done what feels right. But there is no crystal ball. Even with extensive risk assessment, there is no such thing as 100% certainty. Holding in your hands the future of the nation’s children and young people is a daunting responsibility at the best of times. All leaders know the importance of spreading positivity. It is easy to underestimate the emotional energy that takes in times of great uncertainty when perhaps your partner/parent/child is shielding, or in hospital, or in a care home: leaders give so much to their schools it’s easy to forget that they have another life.

Scientists refer to the practice of hiding how we really feel as ‘surface acting: hiding’. It is correlated with lower job satisfaction, poorer wellbeing and greater likelihood of burnout than other methods of dealing with incongruity. A random scan of twitter on June 15th bears this out. Although in the public domain, I have removed the authors’ names.


We, and the leaders themselves, need to take seriously the real danger of burnout. Leaders are expected to be resilient, and too often this is interpreted to mean keeping going whatever happens. Such an interpretation only adds to the feeling of failure for those who are struggling.  It is significant that the option of seeking help in the survey above is associated only with the greatest likelihood of burnout. I’d like to encourage leaders to seek help before they are finding the role unsustainable. The further you fall, the harder it is to climb back up.

A focus on emotional resilience demands that we notice, recognise and accept our emotions. A build-up of stress (adrenalin & cortisol) means we are constantly in fight, flight or freeze mode. That’s a dangerous place to be.  Pressure mounts until – like an unexploded bomb – a minor jolt sets off the explosion. We need to find a way to diffuse the bomb safely.  A build-up of adrenalin is likely to demand a physical response – whether that’s deep breathing to slow the heart rate, energetic exercise to satisfy the ‘flight’ instinct, using a punch-bag to satisfy the urge to fight, or something different that you have found works for you.  As with most things, prevention is better than cure.  Just as you wouldn’t drive for days on end without stopping to refuel your car, neither can you expect your body to keep on keeping on, without refuelling your resilience reservoir.  Leaders often feel isolated with their anxiety and stress;  the fact is that you are not alone. Notice how you are feeling, physically and emotionally. Just 5 minutes a day to pause, acknowledge and re-set will help to prevent being overwhelmed. Seek support.  Share your private despair with someone you trust and make space to breathe again.



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