Stress: Keeping your head above water

Written by: James Hilton | Published:
Image: iStock

As a headteacher, James Hilton fell victim to the huge stress that can affect many school leaders. He now spends his time helping education professionals to recognise and overcome the symptoms of stress. It is a theme tackled in his new book. We invited him to offer some advice to others

Teaching can be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, but it is also one of the most stressful. Resources are rapidly shrinking while the pressure for improved results is relentless.

Add into the mix higher levels of accountability than ever before and shifting goalposts and it is of course inevitable that many teachers are experiencing high levels of stress.

Many teachers are suffering from stress and the cost of long-term cover for absent staff can have serious consequences for school budgets.

As a nation, failure to tackle mental health issues at work may prove to be the biggest barrier to creating the education system our children need and deserve.

Heads care greatly about their children and their staff, but the pressure upon them can often leave them feeling isolated and highly stressed.

Sadly, many feel unable to talk openly about it for fear of what others may think of them and how they might be judged by their staff, by parents, their governing body or by Ofsted. The pressure to appear strong and infallible creates stress in itself and so many people just bottle it up and plough on regardless.

Unfortunately, stress is insidious, and creeps up on a lot of people who fail to spot the warning signs. I should know – I am one of those people.

This is my story. Pleased be assured as you read it that, like many good dramas, it has a happy ending.

In 2006, I was an experienced headteacher in my second headship, an exceptionally large and still rapidly growing primary school in the East Midlands (although I was a primary school leader, my experience and lessons are just as relevant to secondary colleagues).

We had all the associated issues of rising staff and pupil numbers. I strived to maintain an open-door policy, but as pupil numbers soared, I had an increasing number of parents expecting to see me personally and I found it challenging.

Additionally, we had on-going construction work and established routines constantly needed reviewing to reflect revisions in management structures or the expanding physical layout of the site.

I was supported by some very talented senior leaders and a caring governing body, but I began to find it difficult to keep all the plates spinning. I loved my school but was struggling to be everywhere at once and make any impact on my “to-do list”. By this stage we had five playgrounds, 21 classes and nearly 100 staff. As the site grew ever-larger, it became harder to be a visible presence. I felt I was constantly fire-fighting, trying to be everywhere and trying to be there for everyone. I really wanted to be there for them. I cared greatly (it would have been easier if I didn’t!).

Sleepless nights worrying about the budget took their toll and I constantly seemed to be plugging holes in the dam of staffing caused by promotions, planned and unplanned absence.

During the autumn of 2006, matters seemed to intensify. I had stopped going to heads’ meetings. I did not feel able to open up to other colleagues.

I had a wonderful school, well behaved pupils and fantastic facilities. However, I always came back from such meetings with an even longer “to-do list”, feeling even more inadequate. With the benefit of hindsight, retreating into myself was a mistake and my sense of isolation only made me feel worse.

My physical health was deteriorating and migraines were becoming a frequent occurrence. I was forgetful and had regular lower back pain. I suffered panic attacks some days, at exactly the same roundabout halfway on the drive to work. Sat in a lay-by, I would then have to muster the courage to go to school.

Worst of all though I had developed a stammer which was becoming very pronounced and embarrassing in difficult meetings with parents or when addressing large groups. These were the situations I dreaded. It is hard to appear confident and in control of situations when you can’t get your sentences out.

Things had crept up on me and I did not realise how ill I had become.

At the end of the following January, things came to a head. My back went into uncontrollable spasms and I did not move from my lounge floor for over a week.

It was as if my body had shut down. It was as though all the warning lights on my car’s dashboard had come on one by one. With one light on you can perhaps drive a little further to the next garage, but when your dashboard is lit up like a Christmas tree you need to pull over or run the significant risk of breaking down. I broke down.

Classic symptoms of stress include:

  • Sleep: Inability to get to sleep or regularly waking in the night for long periods.
  • Appetite: Skipping meals or comfort eating.
  • Mood: Taking less trouble with appearance or not wanting to socialise.
  • Tolerance: Uncharacteristic mood swings or “snappiness” – often outside of work.
  • Concentration: Inability to settle to tasks.

I now recognise that I was ticking all those boxes, but at the time I could not see the wood for the trees.

My GP prescribed me medication to help me sleep and stabilise my emotions, but I had left it very late to seek help. Although he prescribed a course of cognitive behaviour therapy to aid my recovery, I was too ill to even embark on it for another six weeks.

The therapy was actually very helpful and gave some structure to the weeks off work. I worked with a fantastic mental health therapist called Chris Roome, who has acted as medical consultant on my book. I took up painting to pass the time and this was therapeutic, but I would only paint from photographs – I would rarely venture out of the house for the irrational fear of being seen. When I did go out, I would wear a hat and would not shop anywhere within a 15-mile radius of school.

It took me three months before I started to believe I would ever return to work and a further two before I felt able to begin a phased return.

The governors put into place arrangements to allow me to share the running of the school with my assistant head for a time, and without that support I truly do not think I would have made a successful return.

I did return to headship, far more self-aware than before and armed with strategies to help. I am not going to pretend to you that all the issues went away, but I am proud of the fact that I was able to continue the job I loved in a community I cared about.

After five more years of successful headship I decided to tell my story in the hope that it helps others. You see, at the time, I thought I was the only one not coping – it turns out that this was not true. Through the work that I do now, I know that many people struggle at times – it is just very hard to talk about it.

Through my keynote speeches, workshops and my new book I aim to shine a light on an issue that has gone undiscussed for too long. The book offers practical stress management strategies, but also tips from someone who has been there. Here are 10:

  1. Vary your route to and from work. It can help control anxiety and reduce the sense of getting back on the same rollercoaster. Small changes in routine can be enough to break the negative patterns of thinking that we can get ourselves into.
  2. To-do lists: Try dividing the page each day into “must”, “should” and “could”. You will never get it all done but you usually leave work with the satisfaction of knowing that everything in the “must” list has been completed.
  3. Keep a list of all the unplanned things that take up working time each day, e.g. meeting with parents, phone calls and answering emails. It is re-assuring to see at the end of the day what you have achieved, even if some of it was unscheduled.
  4. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve each day. There will always be unplanned interruptions. Try to factor this in.
  5. To help with focusing on the positive, keep a diary and write down three positive things, however small, that have happened each day. You go home thinking about the positives.
  6. In those difficult meetings with complaints from parents, try to depersonalise the issue. It is very rarely about you personally. Try to unpick what feelings and emotions might be underpinning a complaint before the meeting starts.
  7. Try to find a professional outlet for your expertise outside of your own school, e.g. volunteer to co-ordinate your cluster heads meetings. You see the wider educational landscape which helps to keep things in perspective.
  8. Find a trusted friend outside of your immediate professional circle and talk to them, honestly. We all need someone outside of a situation to challenge our perceptions.
  9. Try to maintain an outside interest or hobby. We need mental distraction from thinking about work in order to relax.
  10. Sleep is key. There are many free apps for phones and tablets with ocean wave sounds. They trick your breathing pattern into a relaxed rhythm allowing you to sleep.

In the course of writing my book I have interviewed 10 leaders of education who also contributed their views on key themes, such as the stress of dealing with difficult parental and staffing issues as well the stress of inspection.

Through all of this, what I have come to realise is that a common trait of successful leaders is the recognition that asking for help is not a weakness, but a strength.

  • James Hilton is a former headteacher and author of Leading From the Edge: A school leaders’ guide to recognising and overcoming stress (Bloomsbury Education).

Further information

For more information on James’ book, go to and for more about his work, visit


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