Leaders under pressure

SLT wellbeing during the pandemic

Following an October 2020 survey of over 700 school leaders, former international school head, Dr. Helen Kelly concluded that colleagues in leadership positions ended 2020 under unprecedented pressure.


The global pandemic is increasing the high levels of stress already experienced by international school leaders. In a survey of school leaders worldwide, which I conducted in October 2020, 87% of international school leaders said their stress levels had increased since the start of the pandemic, while 77% described their current stress levels as high to extremely high.

While the causes of heightened stress during this time vary across contexts, my research identified a number of commonly experienced triggers for intensified pressure impacting international school leaders at the present time. They fall under four themes:

1. Logistical pressures

The sheer volume of logistical problems to be solved on a daily and weekly basis came high on the list of stressors. These included the challenges of implementing an effective programme of online learning, particularly for Early Years students; the complex health and safety procedures necessary to bring students and staff back to school, combined with challenges of staff absences  and the juggling of blended learning models. One respondent described the stresses involved with “making sure we systematically offer the best programme and support for all, from the students quarantined locally, those on campus, those quarantined remotely and those who have not made it back yet.”

2. Contradictory guidance

These logistical problems are often further impacted by insufficient or contradictory guidance from governments. One head referred to how “ typically decisions are made for local schools and then negotiated for international schools. So dealing with miscommunication from the authorities is challenging and this is an area we have very little control over.”

3. Unrealistic expectations

Dealing with the unrealistic and contradictory expectations of different stakeholder groups was also a major trigger for leaders’ stress. One leader described the challenges of “balancing parent expectations with what staff, who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, are able to manage and produce.” Another reported dealing with “the level of judgement and critique that our teachers have been subjected to and the sometimes threatening behaviour from frustrated, and often desperate families.”

4. Managing the anxieties of others

This was another major theme emerging from the study. 84% of leaders said they were supporting others’ emotional needs more since the start of the pandemic, with parents and teaching staff representing the most needy groups. One respondent described how  “the most significant challenge has been dealing with parents, who are increasingly stressed by needing to work (also from home in many cases) and support their children in learning.” Another referred to working with “distressed educators who need to be listened to and supported so that they do not feel too stretched and burnt out by the end of Term 1.”


Coping and support

So how are these leaders dealing with the high level of demands placed upon them?  55% said they had felt close to breaking point at some time during 2020. Leaders described the workload as “relentless and completely unsustainable” with “no down time to recover.” The challenges of balancing their own and their families’ needs with those of school was also an emergent theme. One leader described how she had been managing “at home with my three year old, whilst still supporting my staff and dealing with complaining parents who won’t let up.” Another shared how “when we returned to school staff anxiety was high due to having COVID in the building but by this point my cup was full and I was not able to deal with their anxiety and my own.”

Methods of coping

The most effective coping strategies utilised by international school leaders were healthy lifestyle choices (59%) hobbies and interests (53%) and  connecting with others (45%). Only 33% shared that they are relying on passive coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs and food, which was lower than in the total school leader population surveyed, where it was 48%.

When asked about support, only 38% of leaders reported having sufficient practical support at school, while even less (29%) felt they had adequate emotional support. While some leaders felt their boards have been supportive, others referred to boards being “unsympathetic to teachers’ and SLT needs” and “providing a lack of mental health support”. Some leaders would also like more support from senior colleagues, middle leaders and teaching and non-teaching staff.

Training Needs

41% of international school leaders said their training had prepared them for the current crisis, compared to only 21% of total respondents surveyed. Nevertheless, a need for improved training was identified by many, including crisis management training, stress management training and PD to help leaders support the emotional needs of others. Leaders also identified a need for professional coaching as well as increased opportunities to connect with other school leaders for coaching and support.

Next level skills

Leading during a highly unpredictable, global health and economic crisis, requires next level skills and superhuman resilience if it is not to take a personal toll on the physical and mental health of leaders. The survey provides a snapshot of the stressors international school leaders are facing and highlights the need for improved levels of support and training.


During an extensive international career, Helen Kelly has led schools in Asia and Europe. She completed her doctoral thesis in 2017 on the subject of international school leader wellbeing, before retiring from her role in schools in 2020.

She is now a researcher and writer on a range of educational topics. She writes and blogs as “The Positive Principal”.



For more see about Helen and her analysis of modern school leadership see:

Linkedin:  Dr Helen Kelly

Twitter: @drhkelly

Facebook:  The Positive Principal


Feature Image:  by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Image by Serena Wong from Pixabay

Further Reading: