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  • Chris Jeffery

On Looking After Yourself

35 years in education and nearly 18 years as a Head have taught me that looking after myself is as difficult as it is vital.

With only twelve working weeks left before retirement, last Monday I found myself signed off from work by the doctor for the first time in my life. It came in the week when the awful story (very greatly removed from my own, it must be said) of the Headteacher who took her own life waiting for the publication of a critical Ofsted report made headlines, underlining to more than might have already been aware some of the pressures that those leading in education can face. And it has made me take stock yet again -even at this very late stage in my career- of the importance of work-related wellbeing.


I really don’t pretend to be an expert on this, even though I have presented on the subject to educational leaders on several occasions. However, the past four years have been the most pressured and unremitting I have ever experienced, for a whole variety of reasons. As a result I have found myself consistently driven back to three key conclusions that have emerged for me over my career.


1. My wellbeing is no one else’s responsibility but mine

I believe that one of the biggest misunderstandings of our age is that an individual’s wellbeing is secured -or not secured- by how they are treated by others, most specifically an employer or a ‘significant other’ in their life.


Of course, the conditions an employer creates in a workplace and the supportiveness of a partner -or its lack- will have a significant effect on how we feel or behave. If work or love matters to us, that is bound to be the case.


But, in the end I -and only I- am responsible for my own wellbeing. I should be able to expect to look to others around me for support and help to create the right environment, but I am disempowering myself and heading off down a road towards possible blame and even bitterness if I assume that I am not the prime agent in looking after myself. I always have choices. Only I could decide to take myself off to the doctors last week; only I had the ability to agree to take his advice and look after myself by resting; and only I could make that really difficult decision knowing that it would increase the pressure on those already knackered souls who would have to cover for me. Even though close colleagues were urging me to.


I needed the support of my employer -which I got- to agree to this, and to look at whether some of the pressures that got me here could be considered differently. I already had the support of my wife, who’s been lovingly telling me for ages that I need to look after myself better. But they can’t look after me for me!


A few years ago I joined in with a Twitter conversation in response to a tweet which read:


“I have no time for this wellbeing nonsense: it’s a weasel word designed to paper over cracks and flaws in a system which demands too much of people.”


The author then went on to describe what he did to ensure that he didn’t get swamped in his work (the boundaries he set; the exercise he took; the interests he made time for; his mindset towards work etc) and the many excellent things that his employer -a school- was doing to define sensible expectations or workload. Hence my reply:


“Strikes me that you’ve got ‘this wellbeing nonsense’ pretty well taped: an individual taking responsibility for his own health and life balance, supported by the policies of a thoughtful employer. Just what workplace wellbeing is all about!”


Inadvertently, this wellbeing sceptic had provided me with the best example of an effective approach to personal wellbeing that I could have found!



2. The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is really unhelpful

You may have spotted in my response to the tweeter above a slightly unexpected phrase, one that I have come to adopt increasingly (if not always consistently) when thinking and talking about wellbeing: life balance.


That is because I have a real aversion to the much more commonly deployed phrase ‘work-life balance’. I dislike it because it appears to place ‘work’ and ‘life’ into some sort of opposition to one another. Although a well-meant concept, put crudely it seems to imply that the more I ‘work’, the less I ‘live’; that living is the good bit and work is a sadly necessary enabler of that living.


A bit of a straw man? Maybe. But what it fundamentally does is imply that, in the main, work is not in itself life-giving or life-enhancing. It really shouldn’t be that way should it? In an ideal world our work should provide a level of meaning, challenge, achievement, even joy, that adds to our lives more than it costs us. If we are lucky enough to be able to do so, we should be striving for work that marries what we’re best at with what really matters to us, with what pays us to live securely, with what the world needs from us to be better for others: the Japanese concept of Ikigai. Work should give life, but maybe not become life.


To that end, I vastly prefer the phrase ‘life balance’ or ‘life blend’ to sum up the concept of getting wellbeing closer to right. Drawing on the life-giving opportunities for fulfilment, relationship and purpose that work presents but never allowing those to become the only thing that matters.


I’ve had to remind myself that, even in education where the prosocial purpose of coming to work each day should be so self-evident, it’s really easy to take that for granted and see it became so much a part of the wallpaper that its importance to my welfare is not properly valued or, worse, ignored.



3. Wellbeing is boring

Final, and briefer thought: there is no funky, gold-paved road to looking after wellbeing. It’s dull stuff. It involves eating well, drinking moderately, exercising more, and being self-disciplined about bedtimes. It’s making active decisions about when you’re going to put your work and that you are actually going to go to that film or gig or party or match as a priority. And it’s as hard as it’s boring.


Ultimately, I have found myself driven back to the conclusion most helpfully summarised for me as an equation by Paul McGee in his SUMO books: E+R = O. Event + Response = Outcome. It’s how we respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in that is the most important factor in deciding what the effects those circumstances will have on us.


And only I can do that!

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