The well-being and work-related stress of senior school leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland during COVID-19 “educational leadership crisis”: A cross-sectional descriptive study

Emily Marchant*, Joanna Dowd, LUCY BRAY, Gill Rowlands, Nia Miles, Tom Crick, Michaela James, Kevin Dadaczynski, Orkan Okan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


The COVID-19 pandemic caused far-reaching societal changes, including significant educational impacts affecting over 1.6 billion pupils and 100 million education practitioners globally. Senior school leaders were at the forefront and were exposed to particularly high demands during a period of “crisis leadership”. This occupation were already reporting high work-related stress and large numbers leaving the profession preceding COVID-19. This cross-sectional descriptive study through the international COVID-Health Literacy network aimed to examine the well-being and work-related stress of senior school leaders (n = 323)in Wales (n = 172) and Northern Ireland (n = 151) during COVID-19 (2021–2022). Findings suggest that senior school leaders reported high workloads (54.22±11.30 hours/week), low well-being (65.2% n = 202, mean WHO-5 40.85±21.57), depressive symptoms (WHO-5 34.8% n = 108) and high work-related stress (PSS-10: 29.91±4.92). High exhaustion (BAT:high/very high 89.0% n = 285) and specific psychosomatic complaints (experiencing muscle pain 48.2% n = 151) were also reported, and females had statistically higher outcomes in these areas. School leaders were engaging in self-endangering working behaviours; 74.7% (n = 239) gave up leisure activities in favour of work and 63.4% (n = 202) sacrificed sufficient sleep, which was statistically higher for females. These findings are concerning given that the UK is currently experiencing a “crisis” in educational leadership against a backdrop of pandemic-related pressures. Senior leaders’ high attrition rates further exacerbate this, proving costly to educational systems and placing additional financial and other pressures on educational settings and policy response. This has implications for senior leaders and pupil-level outcomes including health, well-being and educational attainment, requiring urgent tailored and targeted support from the education and health sectors. This is particularly pertinent for Wales and Northern Ireland as devolved nations in the UK, who are both implementing or contemplating major education system level reforms, including new statutory national curricula, requiring significant leadership, engagement and ownership from the education profession.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0291278
Pages (from-to)1-22
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Early online date10 Apr 2024
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2024


  • COVID-19/epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leadership
  • Northern Ireland/epidemiology
  • Occupational Stress
  • Pandemics
  • Schools
  • Wales/epidemiology


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