Taking a step back from burn-out...

Written by: Frances Robertson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Burn-out is not inevitable. As a school leader, how do you take care of yourself? Frances Robertson urges you to avoid burn-out by making time to reflect and step back from the chaos...

As a school leader, you will be committed and dedicated to your school, its staff and students. You are driven to do the very best you can. You will expend energy and put in hours above and beyond the call of duty.

Burn-out is not a term you often hear discussed when it comes to school leaders. High workload is so readily accepted and how little we have slept or how late we have worked sometimes becomes a badge of honour, linked to how “successful” we are.

How do you recognise burn-out?

Burn-out is often not recognised or at least not spotted early enough for any intervention or “time out” to be implemented. When having a bad day becomes a bad week which becomes a bad month or term then you may be approaching burn-out.

The impact of leadership during Covid may have exacerbated the situation and indeed created more turbulence in your already busy and stressful life. Things to look out for include the following:

  • Have you experienced an increase in tiredness; do you feel more drained?
  • Are you feeling that work is more stressful and frustrating than normal?
  • Have you become more cynical about work? Or more detached, including about life outside of work?
  • Are you having difficulty concentrating or feeling that you lack that extra push or creative flair?
  • Are you increasingly restless and yet keep yourself constantly busy, finding it difficult to switch off – and then waking up at 2am recalling things or thinking of things you need to do?
  • Are you too busy to lunch?
  • Are you experiencing any physical effects such as breathlessness or heart palpitations? Do you have the Sunday night dread?

Then you may be suffering from burn-out, a term coined by Herbert Freudenberfer in his 1974 book Burnout: The high cost of high achievement.

Burn-out is not inevitable

Just because you are in a high stress role, and this includes all teachers as well as senior leaders, does not mean you will or have to experience burn-out.

It is all about how well you are managing that stress. And the really good news is that it is not a permanent state. It is about taking steps to change your work environment, your constructs towards it and developing strategies that help you to manage your stress.

We agree that as school leaders you face a plethora of challenges and demands on a regular basis and will consistently work long hours.

The pressures you face are among the most complex in any public sector leadership role.

I am sure you will recognise many of the demands in the list below. I have grouped them into different areas of pressure or stress, although they do not always fit neatly into one box. You may want to mark those that provide stress for you. How many have you marked?

Anticipation of things to come

  • Ofsted
  • Changes in legislation
  • Future national initiatives
  • Future budgetary threats
  • Difficult meetings where tensions may arise

Time commitments

  • Work overload challenges
  • Time management pressures
  • Realistic prioritising while leading through unexpected events
  • Leading change
  • The “non-anticipatable” situations that require reactive leadership

Situational events

  • Premises issues
  • Budget management
  • Staff recruitment and retention
  • Pupil/parent issues
  • Safeguarding situations


  • Personnel disputes
  • Conflicting leadership demands
  • Differing expectations of a plethora of stakeholders
  • Counteracting wariness of change
  • Having to use leadership styles/skills that fall outside preferred ways of working

What can you do?

So, my question to you is what do you do to ensure that you can manage these and still retain good mental health and wellbeing for yourself? Remember that if you are not in a good place this has an impact on your family and friends, your team around you, and other leaders in the building. In the longer term these stressors can have a detrimental impact on your physical health too.

Some or all of these stressors or signs/symptoms of burn-out may be experienced while you are still carrying out your role to a very high standard. This is where reflection time becomes critical.

As a school leader, you need to take time to reflect on your day, reflect on your successes and what has gone well. It is so easy to only think about the challenges and problems.

I can recall reviewing end of year data for year 6 with a fellow headteacher. I found myself concentrating on the “weaker” areas and discussing how we could move this forward and my colleague simply said: “Don’t forget to eat the cake!” (the overall data was very good).

In our quest to achieve the very best we can for each and every child we can forget to celebrate the successes. We are constantly looking for the improvements. This can be exhausting.

Take a break

Ensuring you actually take a break during the day is crucial. Actually book time in your diary every day which is your break time. Ideally leave the building and go on a walk for at least 30 minutes.

When you are so busy and you think you cannot fit this into the day this is exactly when you must do this. That space away allows you time to distance yourself and you may also be amazed how solutions seem to simply come to you when doing this.

The Wellbeing Charter

The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter recently published by the Department of Education states: “We are united in our view that improved wellbeing among education staff is a key outcome for education policy.”

It specifically mentions Ofsted’s pledge to check that leaders’ wellbeing is being protected: “This should include access to confidential counselling and/or coaching where needed.”

Time for reflection

Keeping a reflection journal is a cathartic process and allows you to think through and record your personal thoughts, opinions and experiences. It allows you to notice any changes in your body, mind emotions or behaviour, too. This then allows you to seek support early on if required.

Ensure that you have regular protected time for facilitated and in-depth reflection. This may be through coaching or reflective leadership supervision. It is an opportunity to have time with another professional that allows you to offer an account of your work, reflect upon it and receive constructive feedback.

It is in other words a safe place to acknowledge concerns, stressors and successes without any fear or worry of a report being written which will be submitted to other leaders, governors or a school improvement partner.

It is an opportunity for open discussion with someone who understands the challenges, emotions and conflicting demands of your role and with someone with whom it is safe to talk openly.

Ideally these meetings should occur regularly, however the main thing is that they are timed to fit around those pressure points – for some individuals this may be at the end of each half-term when they can off-load their concerns, reflect on what has happened, and the way forward, and then really enjoy their holiday. For others these meetings may happen throughout the term.

Either way, they should enable you to resource and sustain yourself as well as support the maintenance of a healthy work/life balance. They will allow you to feel less isolated, too.


Being a headteacher or a senior school leader or class teacher does not mean that you deserve less care and attention than is dedicated to the children in your school. You must put your oxygen mask on first if you are to protect those around you.

Frances Robertson, having recently retired from headship, offers confidential support for school leaders and headteachers to ensure wellbeing and professional development through reflective supervision and coaching as well as offering educational consultancy support. Visit www.headsconnect.co.uk

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