Many school leaders are teetering on the edge of burnout on a day-to-day basis. Photo: Stockphoto

Self-care essential for school leaders

OPINION: A failure to take care of one’s own wellbeing will quickly blunt a leader’s capacity to do what’s best for others.

A dangerous and flawed perception is doing the rounds of many schoolyards – one that is escalating and rarely challenged.  

This perception appears to garner such blind and erroneous acceptance within the education community that, on a daily basis, it blemishes the careers of many school leaders. In the longer term, it prevents them from leading fulfilling professional and personal lives.

This (flawed) perception held by many is that the very best leaders, those who sacrifice their own wellbeing for that of others, create the very best schools. 

Many school leaders will tell you that their sense of purpose, commitment and belief in what they do forces them to spend more than 60 hours a week at work, to cope with extraordinary increases in their workload over the past 10 years.

For many, that increased workload has arisen as they grapple with the increased expectations of employers, teachers, parents and even students.

At the same time, school leaders as a group have forged a notorious reputation for failing to embrace proper self-care.  

A well-held collective belief among many school leaders is that giving to themselves reduces the time available to give to others. In other words, many school leaders believe that taking time out for exercise or simply to catch up on sleep actually pulls them away from their commitment to helping others.

And it is this belief that has many school leaders teetering on the edge of burnout on a day-to-day basis.

As a condition, the broad characteristics of burnout include feelings of depleted energy levels, increasing disengagement form one’s work, feelings of negativity and cynicism, and reduced professional competency.  Hardly ingredients for successful leadership, right?

And despite data from The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Well-being Survey, which highlights a decline in the wellbeing of principals, many school leaders are yet to jump on the self-care bandwagon.

There are plenty of reasons for school leaders’ apparent failure to embrace their own self-care. Some, for example, are not convinced that burnout is real. After all, it is increasingly being used as a catchall term for a variety of workplace conditions and ailments.   

The World Health Organisation has nipped that doubt in the bud, however, by upgrading the definition of ‘burnout’ in its International Disease Classification – the official compendium of diseases – from a ‘state of exhaustion’ to a syndrome resulting from ‘chronic workplace stress’.  

Yet some school leaders believe burnout is temporary and can be fixed with a decent holiday. This will help in the short term but do little in the long term if school leaders return to work fresh and recharged, only to then again neglect their daily self-care.

Then there are those who simply believe the cure for burnout is to work smarter, not harder.

Granted, working smarter might free up some time to engage in self-care activities. However, there is a tendency for many school leaders to invest the extra time gleaned from working smarter back into new leadership initiatives, rather than self-care.

But here’s the kicker: school leaders who take care of themselves end up being far better leaders and able to give a lot more than those who hold the view that being a great leader means sacrificing one’s mental health.

If you have travelled on a plane and listened intently to the pre-take off safely announcements, you will find they contain a message for school leaders.

Airlines will advise you to fix your own oxygen mask before you assist others. The easily understood theory is that if you pass out while trying to help others, because you have ‘sacrificed’ yourself in pursuit of prioritising the care of others, you are helping no-one.

The same theory can apply to the school leader. If you relegate the need to take care of yourself to the back of the queue, you won’t be able to serve others in an effective way in the longer term.  

So help yourself before you help others by developing an effective professional support network, getting more sleep, taking more time to prepare healthy meals, engaging in regular exercise, taking regular breaks during the day – and perhaps even consider attending a mindfulness workshop, which might help to shelter you from stress.

You will be a better leader for it and take a giant step towards avoiding burnout.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA


This was a fantastic and insightful read; just what I needed to read this morning.

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This article was very insightful and very useful to me. Reading it over breakfast this morning was certainly my step towards avoiding burnout. Good food for thought, it's appreciated.

Great article - a burnout isn't going to help these leaders meet their mission.

You have touched upon a very important point of the reality of burnout. Most people don't realise it until it is too late. Really insightful article.

Burnout is a real issue, and while many of us work long hours to start and grow a business, we need to find ways to outsource as soon as cash flow accepts. I don't know of any successful self-employed person who works a 40 hour week - or does not work at least one day on the weekend.

Bravo to this timely article. With the heightened awareness of the need for leaders to put their own oxygen masks on first, we have an opportunity to learn how best to accomplish this. Leaders need safe spaces within which to unpack their stresses with trusted others, and process their humanness together, so as not to lose touch with it. There are meaningful ways to accomplish this, and part of the work is fostered by learning to practise emotional meaning making, as I like to call it. Again, congratulations on recognising and affirming the needs of great leaders. Getting support with how best to accomplish this is the next step.

An awesome article highlighting the need to put self first – something the leaders in schools need to be aware of filling their emotional cups so they can give more without burning out.

Such good advice here. Burnout is such a huge concern.

Love this article. Burnout is a serious issue. Thank you for bringing this up into the public consciousness.

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