I’m writing this during a half term break which I have struggled with to be honest. Whilst grateful for the break from remote learning and home-school, it’s been hard to relax. There’s the constant speculation in the press about when and how we will return to school, the challenge of entertaining two kids who are desperate for adventure, and the feeling of needing to escape myself. Many of the usual activities I would choose just aren’t possible, but this morning I met one of my best friends for a walk around a big local park and wow did I feel better afterwards! The chance to offload with someone else, have a laugh about our mutual home-school disasters or lament the feeling of an empty house was worth its weight in gold. The walk and how I came back feeling reminded me of a part of Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead which I finished yesterday. It made me realise that I acknowledged I had been feeling overwhelmingly tired and low, but that what I was actually suffering from was loneliness. Brené tells the story of a leader called Colonel DeDe Halfhill, who works in the American Air Force Global Strike Command. She had read an article in Harvard Business Review about an organisation researching high levels of exhaustion in different companies: “What they found was that whilst these employees were in fact exhausted, it wasn’t because of the ops tempo. They were actually exhausted because people were lonely. Their workforces were lonely, and that loneliness was manifesting itself in a feeling of exhaustion….When we’re lonely, we just feel lethargic. We don’t really want to do anything; we think we’re tired and we just want to sleep.” Thanks to reading Brené’s work, Halfhill was able to have the courage to ask her Air Force team if they were lonely and start to work through some solutions.
It’s easy to ignore the possibility that what I may have been experiencing was loneliness when like me, you don’t live on your own and have active whatsapp conversations, regular zooms and even go out to work a couple of days a week. In fact I would have said as an introvert, I actually crave time on my own! But in lockdown having those real heart to heart conversations which break down barriers are rare and yet without these conversations and moments to be really vulnerable, it’s easy to feel like you carry the load on your own. Even without our normal hugs, seeing my friend this morning, someone I knew I could be brutally honest and let my guard down with, cry with and laugh with, made me feel less lonely than I have done for weeks.
This prompted me to think about staff wellbeing during this tough lockdown period and how this loneliness may be even more profound for our colleagues who live alone, who are shielding or who just don’t have the opportunity to meet up with a friend like I had today. I feel as leaders during this period in particular, we have a responsibility as far as is possible to help our colleagues who may be experiencing these feelings. As part of building up our school cultures and protecting staff wellbeing, perhaps loneliness should be something we are considering. Hopefully the lockdown will not last for many more weeks, but it seems that life as we knew it may not return for quite some time yet. So what can we do practically to help?
Building a sense of community is not something which develops overnight, but having a strong foundation and vision led from the top where everyone knows how they contribute is obviously important as a starting point. But in this lockdown period, I think small gestures can mean so much to colleagues who may be struggling with loneliness. A personal thank you card written by the Principal and received over the half term break by post, in recognition of going above and beyond in the last few weeks, I know has meant so much to staff at my school. A public or private thank you gives you a sense of belonging and feeling noticed. Having a line manager who checks in on you regularly, not to ask you if you have completed the assessment data or planned that new scheme of work, but who actually takes the time to ask how you are really and expresses real empathy, certainly can help you feel less alone. Our staff newsletter has also really connected staff, helped us get to know each other a little better and find things in common. A rota in school has also been set up where wherever possible the same subject team can be in together and work socially distanced and this has also really helped maintain a sense of community.
Colonel DeDe Halfhill writes “Loneliness is such a hard thing for many of us to admit. I thought maybe one person would raise their hand. But when fifteen people raised their hands, I was shocked.” The pandemic and lockdown is undoubtedly affecting people’s mental health and I think a deep loneliness may be at the root of much of that and be more widespread than we may realise. I don’t have many answers but I do think it’s something school leaders need to be aware of and seek to mitigate until we are able to come back together again. There’s no shame in feeling lonely; I know for me, the online world is no substitute for a muddy walk in the park with my best friend.