Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Get the balance right

Spirit level

While it may seem contradictory at the moment, part of the rationale for workforce remodelling is to improve work-life balance. Edward Gildea argues that it is as much about balancing emotions as time.

During the election, party leaders attempted to outbid each other for the vote of parents who are "juggling the competing demands of work and home life". Work-life balance was clearly at centre stage.

Of course, there is no one answer to finding the perfect work-life balance.

But the quest is made easier once it's recognised that work-life balance is not the same as time management. It's as much about finding an emotional balance.

If your job is emotionally draining - dealing with 'in your face' pupils and exhausted colleagues - you are going to need much more recovery time.

If, however, your job gives you genuine emotional fulfilment, you will go home with energy and optimism to spare.

Quick quiz

To measure your work-life balance, answer the following questions:

  • Do you go to sleep thinking about work?

  • Do you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work?

  • How does your digestive system feel before you set off in the morning?

  • How many moments did you actually enjoy during work yesterday?

  • Did you get short tempered with a class or a colleague?

  • Were you too tired to interact with family members last night?

  • When did you last chat meaningfully with your children or spouse?

  • Are you looking forward to tomorrow?

If your answers indicated that all is not well, your work-life balance needs to be corrected.

This is not so much by a change in time allocations, although that might help, but by getting to the root of the conflicts and frustrations that are generating all the stress.

The pressures from pupils can be enormous, but they become bearable if staff are working together and supporting each other to meet the challenges.

If those relationships are breaking down, you might consider getting objective help from a SHA consultant.

The 'long hours culture' is another villain and tends to emanate from the top down. When you work late, you might not only be doing yourself little good, you may be sending out a message which adversely affects other members of staff.

To change it, you need to shift the focus from inputs, ie time, to outputs.

If colleagues are delivering on time and with the right quality, it shouldn't matter if they dash off at 4pm, or take special time off to see their children perform in the nativity play or run in their first sports day.

Urgent vs important

"But as a school leader, I need to work insanely long hours!" you may say. I would argue that's not necessarily true.

As a leader, you should be focusing on what is important, not what is urgent.

To achieve this, dump virtually everything that is neither important nor urgent, then effectively delegate the things which are urgent but not important. In time, there will be even less to do in the 'important and urgent' square.

Of course this is easier said than done. But the real value of this is in managing change.

In this way, you get the strategy right through careful consideration of the human factors, early consultation and a problem-solving approach rather than by burning the midnight oil and doing it all yourself.

The latter generates huge people management problems as a consequence of presenting what is perceived as a 'fait accompli' and does nothing for your work-life balance.

Flexible working

In the workplace, greater flexibility is the order of the day with new legislation giving increased rights for parents to request changes to their working hours and longer maternity and paternity leave.

All these requests equal headaches for timetablers and make it even harder to give our children the continuity of teaching and pastoral care they need.

However, I am still proud of the extended 15 months' maternity leave I arranged 12 years ago for a young science teacher who was expecting twins, when I had the personnel brief as a deputy head.

There was no legislation forcing our hand, but it seemed a caring and reasonable thing to do. We managed the temporary contracts and she came back to be a highly valued teacher, was promoted and is now a head of department elsewhere.

Helping her to manage that enormously demanding phase of her life was good for the teaching profession, as well as crucial for her.

It won't ever be easy though, especially when good temporary staff are like gold dust.

There are staff who pay you back a hundredfold and staff who appear to take advantage.

But the message it gives out about how your school cares about the home life and the well-being of its front-line staff is a very positive one.

Get physical

As a final thought, you need a physical balance too. Not that teachers have a sedentary job: thousands of miles get clocked up on school corridors every day.

But a few sessions of good aerobic, sweat-producing exercise is healthy for both body and soul. A luxurious gym, with relaxing jacuzzi and sauna is one option.

Or you could join me in our community hall for some old-fashioned circuit training with the 'fit fat blokes'.

There is no argument that school leaders, and especially heads, work long hours. But, while workload may to some extent be beyond your control, your attitude and the example you set for others will set the tone for your school and start to tip the scales in your favour.

Edward Gildea left education four years ago. He now runs seminars and consultancy in management and personnel issues.

Ways to maintain your work-life balance

  • Make a distinction between 'important' and 'urgent' work; spend most of your time on the important and delegate the urgent.

  • Evaluate success by outputs, ie work accomplished, rather than by how many hours you've put in.

  • Set the culture for the rest of the school - leave at 4pm on occasion and encourage others to do so.

  • Identify areas of stress at work and deal with these first. If you enjoy your work, you'll have more energy at the end of the day.

  • Make time for physical exercise. It rejuvenates body and soul.

More information

To get more strategies for improving with work-life balance, visit www.employersforwork-lifebalance.org.uk or www.dti.gov.uk/work-lifebalance

© 2022 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT