How the pandemic deepened an existing wellbeing crisis in headteaching – new research

The COVID pandemic exacerbated problems that had been simmering in the education profession across the UK. Already facing significant challenges with resources and workload, headteachers are now navigating the longer-term disruptions caused by COVID, with lasting ramifications for the profession, as well as schools and students.

Our new study found low wellbeing, depressive symptoms, high work-related stress and physical and mental exhaustion were common among headteachers during the height of the pandemic.

Even before the start of the pandemic in early 2020, teachers and headteachers had raised concerns about workload, wellbeing, recruitment and retention within the profession. In the preceding years, experts discussed the potential crisis in educational leadership as a result of the ever-changing demands on headteachers.

COVID has been described as the most significant disruption in the history of formal education by Unesco. Its data shows that more than 1.6 billion pupils and 100 million teachers globally were affected.

Headteachers had to design, implement and manage new roles and responsibilities on a scale never before seen. These decisions affected their lives, as well as the lives of their colleagues, students, families and communities.

Researchers initially responded by studying the effects on children and teachers, including in early-years settings, as well as across other education sectors such as higher education. But examining how school headteachers dealt with the effects of COVID in terms of wellbeing and work-related stress was neglected.

To address this research gap, we surveyed more than 320 headteachers in Wales and Northern Ireland. Our work was part of a wider international study conducted in 17 countries. Our aim was to investigate how COVID had affected headteachers and to explore whether men and women experienced the situation differently.

What we found

Our results in Wales and Northern Ireland were stark. Most headteachers reported higher workloads than before the pandemic, working at least 50 hours per week. This was coupled with high levels of work-related stress.

Stress and heavy workloads have been some of the major factors driving headteachers out of the profession in recent years and this worsened during in the first two years of the pandemic.

In fact, 63% of headteachers in our study told us they often sacrificed sufficient sleep, and 75% often gave up leisure activities in favour of work. These are examples of self-endangering behaviour – coping mechanisms that are necessary to fulfil working demands but are not conducive to health and wellbeing. Female leaders in our study were more likely to report these in response to high workloads.

During the height of the pandemic, headteachers had to design, implement and manage new roles and responsibilities on a scale never before seen.
Gary L Hider/Shutterstock

Some 65% of headteachers reported low levels of wellbeing, which was lower than reported by the adult population in the UK. And 35% in our study reported depressive symptoms. These issues extend beyond headteachers themselves, as research suggests a link between teacher wellbeing and the health, wellbeing and attainment of pupils.

Increased workload and self-endangering behaviour can lead to burnout, a psychological syndrome caused by chronic job stress. Exhaustion is a core symptom of burnout, and almost 90% of heads in our study had high or very high levels of exhaustion.

Again, this was higher in women, who were also more likely to experience physical symptoms such as headaches or muscle pain. Wider research points to societal gender expectations as a contributing factor, highlighting the pressure of juggling work with domestic responsibilities such as childcare and looking after elderly family members.

Despite the many work-related challenges experienced by headteachers in our study, meaningfulness – the extent to which their work situation is perceived as worthy of commitment and involvement – was reported as high. Headteachers still valued their role and contribution, suggesting a strong sense of social responsibility.

This level of social responsibility must be matched by support and investment from policymakers, especially in a “new normal” for education.

Prioritising wellbeing

The assumption that society would simply bounce back after the pandemic has been short-lived. Most recently, headteachers in Wales and Northern Ireland have resorted to industrial action, citing high workload, below inflation pay awards and chronic school underfunding. This continued pressure is mirrored across the rest of the UK.

Our study’s findings add to the growing body of evidence on the pressures faced by headteachers, which have been amplified by the pandemic and the continuing challenges in education. This includes a decade of budget cuts, declining Pisa results (which ranks participating countries according to students’ performance in maths, reading and science) and persisting educational inequality.

Read more:
Wales’s Pisa school test results have declined – but it’s not a true reflection of an education system

Beyond the immediate pressures of managing schools during the first two years of COVID, headteachers also shoulder the responsibility of implementing systemic changes. Major educational reforms are either underway or have recently been completed in all four UK nations.

The wellbeing and working conditions of headteachers is fundamental if we want to create the conditions for children and young people to have the best start to their lives and thrive in society. We must learn the lessons from the pandemic and put support in place to improve the working conditions of headteachers and senior school leaders more generally. After all, the fate of current and future generations is in their hands.

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