The Three Critical C’s of Self Care for School Leaders – putting your own Oxygen Mask on First to Help the others.

In these extraordinary times, leaders of schools have had to become adaptable, flexible and nimble, getting systems to fit in with the ever-shifting sands of Government regulation and restriction.  The obvious point of being a leader, is to lead – physical and mental strength being at a premium -definitely not to just paper over the cracks of stress, overwhelm and agitation of growing demands.  Commonly leaders just try and push through, ignoring the amber health warning lights on the way.  Signs that flash up to say there might be a problem include, sleep problems, headaches, irritability or mentally checking out at meetings.  This makes it critically important that senior leadership start with their own wellbeing so that they can be the captain of a well-run and calm ship, rather than the headless chicken in the chicken coup, to mix my metaphors.

Whilst leaders might pay lip service to the concept of wellbeing and especially the broad term of “mental health”, the idea of wellbeing programmes in schools only really applies to teachers and pupils and most definitely does not apply to senior positions.  Full Stop.   Simply put, senior leadership often think that they are immune, excused and let off needing to look after themselves.  Why?  Time and demands of meetings, Ego (I don’t need this) and the vague feeling that wellbeing is all very well, but well, just a little woolly and if it involves flapping around in a kaftan (like a hippy from the 1960’s) it’s definitely not something to dedicate precious time to. Of course, there are very many notable exceptions, and when exceptions do come, it is more than not around allowing time for exercise (important of course) but very often the more aggressive achieving types of exercise, dressing up like spiderman for long distance running or mountain biking is one example.  Solitary, and goal driven.

Good physical health leads to good mental health – mens sana in corpore sano and all that, but it is interesting in modern times, that mental health is almost treated as a disconnected and separate entity and the connection to the physical body is almost sidelined. In the West, this most likely comes from the cultural heritage from thinkers such as Descarte of “I think therefore I am” fame, which allowed for our mind to be separated from the body, which appealed to the church making it acceptable for early medical knowledge seekers to defile corpses, to satisfy the growing curiosity of the scientific revolution of enlightenment thinking.

The point is wellbeing is a rounded concept.  The World Health Organisation defines health as “a complete physical and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity” – so wellbeing isn’t just about racing through the countryside on your super-duper snazzy bike in a blur,  perhaps sporting a pair of racing googles, displacing animals and people as you roar around at top speed, pooping your horn, like a demented Mr Toad (and you are too young if you don’t know who Mr Toad is – he’s from the children’s book  The Wind in The Willows, as you ask).   

In order to operate at top level with plenty of energy, controlled stress, level headedness and wisdom (in order to help the rest of your team), you need to think about the three C’s of Critical Self Care; the first C is for Cook  (your nutrition and eating), the second C is for Cope (Stress management, Sleep and Recovery) and finally the last C is for Connection (your social interaction) and a huge contributor to first class health, energy and clarity.

Cook – Looking after your nutrition – Nutrition is the foundation of vibrant good health – about 80 percent of all disease has a nutritional root. The easiest way to control your base health is through improving your nutrition.  Eating what you might think is healthy food is not good enough, because even fresh food can be very poor in essential nutrients like minerals.  Eating to control the hormone insulin (which controls blood sugar) also controls your stress hormones, balancing mood (making you a better leader obviously!)  Eating right can also help your cognitive performance and of course help build up a strong and robust immune system. Making time for good nutrition, sourcing and cooking good food is key – it is not a ‘nice to have’ but an absolutely non-negotiable, need to have in order to function at your best. Many leaders make the mistake that food is just fuel (and thus load anything in) only to retire and have all the nutritional deficiencies pile up into serious health issues.  

Cope – Paying attention to and putting strategies in to mitigate stress is vital – stress sounds like a pretty normal state of being, but the very powerful hormones that control the stress reaction (cortisol, amongst others) can have extremely devastating effects if left unchecked.  One of the major robbers of vitality is poor sleep, exacerbated by our “uppers and downers” – Caffeine for the up and drinking alcohol for the down.  According to Professor Matt Walker author of “Why We Sleep” alcohol robs us of our crucial REM sleep which is the cycle of sleep that processes our memories and clears out the “filing cabinets” of what has happened in the day. Rather depressingly, he adds, that you can’t make up a sleep debt.  The slight damage to the brain is permanent.  And that catches up with you in the end. 

Connection – Connection is no small matter when it comes to health.  Humans are social animals and thrive in our tribes. There was much made around the science of mirror neurons a few years back – mirror neurons are the part of the brain that fires when we act or see another act (as if we were performing the action ourselves) – compassion for example, begats compassion.  The neurons only fire by eye-to-eye contact apparently, thus Zoom eyes don’t count. After the disruption to our lives created by COVID-19 and especially how we live as social animals, as leaders we need to recreate the fragile “cobwebs” of connection that existed between us – recreating trust, friendship and humanity. Re-creating these bonds is good for our teams, yes, but good for us too.

Putting ourselves first, putting our own oxygen mask of health on first, is vital to help us survive, but most importantly thrive in a fast moving, complex and ever-changing world.  Leadership is about getting a critical foundation of health in first for yourself, and then attending to the others – and who knows, even inspiring them?

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