leader wellbeing

The Influential Power of a Leader’s Wellbeing on Staff and Students

A culture of wellbeing starts at the top. 

It’s impossible to resolve staff wellbeing woes if the leaders in a school are experiencing chronic and unmanaged stress or burnout. The state of a leader’s wellbeing can impact the wellbeing and performance of both staff and students. So, when wanting to create a culture that prioritises wellbeing, leaders must take a self-reflective look at how well-managed their own wellbeing is. 

Building self-awareness around our stressors and triggers and implementing strategies that allow us to cope helps us become better at problem-solving, builds resilience, promotes job satisfaction, boosts emotional intelligence, and ultimately makes us better leaders. 

School leaders with a strong sense of wellbeing then go on to lead with energy, enthusiasm and compassion, and, in turn, they’re able to build stronger relationships with staff, address problems objectively, and have more capacity to consider the needs of others.

Further, leaders who value their own wellbeing have the power to act as role models for staff and the school community as a whole. It’s easier to pass on values of wellbeing when we, as leaders, adopt them as our own.  

This article will cover:

  • Why leader wellbeing matters and the impact it has on the school community
  • A definition of wellbeing from a multidimensional perspective
  • Common leadership stressors
  • The importance of developing effective coping strategies
  • Practical steps leaders can take to begin to address and improve their wellbeing

Leader wellbeing matters, too

Leaders are equally, if not more, susceptible to burnout than staff are. In fact, in 2021, Gallup highlighted that middle leaders are the most burnt out in an organisation – so my thoughts turn straight to year-level and curriculum leaders and heads of house.

School leadership nowadays calls for robust physical, emotional and intellectual energy, which requires a strong sense of wellbeing. But, unfortunately, wellbeing is inherently left off the priority list in our training and preparation programs as leaders and requires constant monitoring. 

The impact of leader wellbeing goes beyond just impacting the personal wellbeing of the leader. It can influence the effectiveness of an individual’s leadership, promote healthy relationships, develop community partnerships, and support social-emotional learning initiatives for students. Combined, these lead to a healthy school climate and positive student outcomes. 

When leaders experience unmanaged chronic stress, it can impact how they interact with colleagues – for example, they may react based on feelings of exhaustion and frustration versus feelings of empathy and understanding. Or they may be more focused on the challenges they’re experiencing versus those their staff are experiencing and the relevant solutions – ultimately missing the mark on leadership. 

Inevitably, the stress experienced by leaders trickles down to staff and, eventually, students. 

The good news is that you can achieve a more positive and wellbeing-driven trickledown effect with a focus on leadership wellbeing.  

A multidimensional definition of wellbeing

Before going any further, it’s important to note that wellbeing goes beyond physical and mental health. 

Across the literature, researchers highlight how wellbeing is a multidimensional and complex construct (Ryan and Deci, 2017; Gable and Haidt, 2005; Keyes, 2002; Seligman, 2011) that is completely subjective and experienced differently by individuals (Cherkowski et al., 2020).

A state of wellbeing is achieved when all the dimensions are balanced and attended to. Depending on which model you look at, there can be up to eight dimensions of wellbeing.  See fig. below.

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Further, Dodge et al. (2012) define wellbeing as “a balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced” (p. 230). Our ability to make proactive choices to prioritise the multiple dimensions of our wellbeing (Stoewen, 2017) and apply relevant coping strategies to stress requires proactive inner work (Steward, 2014).

Another relevant model for assessing overall wellbeing is one that much of my work is based on – the PERMA model

Initially developed by the pioneer of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, the PERMA model proposes at least five core areas that impact our wellbeing.

Positive emotions: Experiencing a range of positive emotions often improves wellbeing

Engagement: Feeling a sense of flow and absorption in what you do helps us feel engaged

Relationships: Positive relationships contribute to our inherent need for connection

Meaning: Feeling a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging in life contributes to happiness

Accomplishment: Experiencing a sense of accomplishment motivates us to keep going

Health: Added later but just as important – physical and mental health is also crucial in the wellbeing equation. 

When reflecting on our wellbeing, it’s a good idea to look at how we’re faring across each area and dimension of wellbeing. 

Common leadership stressors

Now that we have a clearer understanding of what a complete picture of wellbeing entails, we can explore the stressors and triggers that leaders often face. 

Some of the leading workplace and workload-related stressors for leaders include:

  • Managing staff and people
  • Staff shortages/staffing
  • Accountability 
  • Coaching and development of teachers and staff
  • Leading constant change and developing a positive school culture
  • Improving student success and school performance

School leaders often find themselves in the middle between “the system” and the staff they lead, and trying to find that delicate balance that appeases everyone can be a challenge and a lot of pressure.  

It is little wonder that a leader’s overall sense of personal wellbeing ends up falling down the list of priorities. High and unmanaged stress levels caused by any number of these areas among school leaders are leading to increased levels of leader burnout (Collie et al., 2020; Mahfouz and Richardson, 2021), especially when their personal wellbeing is not placed at the forefront. 

Applying the right coping strategies

The next part of the equation revolves around coping with these stressors. Stressful and challenging times are something that we will invariably face in our careers, as schools are stressful settings to work in. 

Multiple factors can influence our feelings of wellbeing in our lives and at work: ourselves, our relationships, our workplace, systems we are a part of, and life and world events. 

While there are some factors that we have very little control over, we ultimately have the most control over ourselves – the way we handle a situation and what coping strategies we apply. 

In 2017, Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck structured various coping strategies into the most commonly used ones. The way we cope can be best categorized into adaptive and non-adaptive strategies. The best way to think of these is “helpful” and “less than helpful.” The more adaptive or helpful the strategies we apply, the sooner we can recover, grow and enjoy our lives.

Ultimately, when we face a challenge, we can access and use four different coping categories:

Actions: What we do in the face of a challenge 

Our personal abilities: How we handle a situation 

Our social resources: How we access and utilise our loved ones and social network

Our inner and outer language: What we say to ourselves and others

Overall, research demonstrates that current and future school leaders may need more solid skills to manage and cultivate a sense of wellbeing. As such, they are developing non-adaptive coping mechanisms which follow them throughout their career.

How can leaders begin to address and improve their overall sense of wellbeing?

Leader wellbeing can influence the effectiveness of an individual’s leadership, promote healthy relationships, develop community partnerships, and support social-emotional learning initiatives for students – which leads to a healthy school climate and eventually positive student outcomes (Cherkowski et al., 2020; Mahfouz & Richardson, 2021). 

If improved student and school performance is the end goal for schools, an emphasis on our own wellbeing as leaders is imperative. 

1. Take stock of your wellbeing 

A review of the research into leader wellbeing found that a leader’s sense of wellbeing across multiple domains (Stoewen, 2017) is strongly attributed to a sense of ‘balance’ in their work and life (Cherkowski et al., 2020) and active engagement in positive interventions for wellbeing helps to address their stress levels through the (Cross & Falconer, 2021; Selligman, 2011). 

Ways to do this include: 

  • Use journaling as a tool for self-reflection
  • Reflect on how you are faring across the eight dimensions of wellbeing. Do you feel fulfilled and happy with each of these areas of your life?
  • Reflect on how you are faring across the six areas of the PERMA(H) model in your work life. For example, are you experiencing positive emotions often? Do you have thriving relationships at work? Do you feel a sense of meaning, engagement and accomplishment in your career? 
  • Finally, observe how you cope with challenging and stressful times. Are you using adaptive or non-adaptive coping strategies?

2. Consider if your state of wellbeing is impacting your leadership 

Loader (2010) discusses how when a leader’s general health and wellbeing are poor, they are often deprived of the energy and creativity needed to access and “develop the inner self” required to lead effectively. Therefore, having self-awareness is the first fundamental quality of an effective leader.

For a leader unable to be responsive to their own wellbeing and needs, caring for and attending to the needs of others is likely to be a challenge. 

If you do not feel healthy, happy and well, is this impacting your ability to connect with and lead your team effectively? If not, what can you do to prioritise yourself in order to give more to others?

3. Reflect on your capacity and success in supporting others 

Considering how successful you are in supporting others enables you to review the effectiveness of the interventions and prevention options you offer to your staff. Adopting emotionally supportive behaviours reduces fears and anxieties, builds a culture of trust, respect, and solidarity and enables collaboration (Berkovich & Eyal, 2015; Heffernan et al., 2022; Tronto, 2013). 

Furthermore, the literature confidently asserts that teachers report enhanced professional wellbeing and self-efficacy, less work-related stress and pressure, and a greater capacity to prioritise their students (Cross & Falconer, 2021; Osher et al., 2020) when they perceive their wellbeing is prioritised and are supported by their leaders. 

It is important to have an accurate assessment of whether the support you offer is well-received by those you lead.

Still trying to figure it out? Here are some strategies you could try:

  • Use the Leader Reflection Tool to evaluate your capacity as a leader
  • Have regular conversations with a ‘critical’ friend or someone who can provide you with constructive feedback
  • Ask for feedback from those you lead and work alongside 
  • Reflect on feedback you’ve received in the past

4. Engage in continued professional development, coaching and opportunities to develop skills in wellbeing 

The literature on leader wellbeing highlights that in order to survive and thrive in an intensively emotional and complex school ecosystem, leaders require specific capabilities, qualities, and social resources to manage the emotion, stress, and steep mental health challenges they all may face. 

The instability and competitive environment of schools nowadays requires specific personal abilities and emotional intelligence to cope, adapt and manage global and local turbulences that are experienced in schools today (Berkovich & Eyal, 2015; Duckworth & Yeager, 2015). 

If you are a school principal or deputy principal, this might call for leader preparation and ongoing professional development programs at your school to include the relevant professional learning and skill acquisition to support leaders to positively influence their own wellbeing and, ultimately, those they lead.

Conclusion

School leaders with a good sense of wellbeing can influence their staff’s feelings of wellbeing. Teacher and staff feelings of wellbeing influence their mental health (Lester et al., 2020), engagement (Cross & Falconer, 2021), workplace satisfaction (Kern et al.,2014), workplace culture (Turner, 2019), relationships (Osher et al., 2020) which ultimately plays a crucial role in securing student academic success and wellbeing (Duckworth et al., 2009). 

If you are interested in receiving the support you need to develop an effective wellbeing strategy for you, your staff, and your school – remember my signature school partnership program, “Well-Led” Schools – opens only once per term. Be sure to get on the waitlist to be notified when doors open next by visiting the Well-Led Schools Partnerships page

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