I used to think that as an experienced headteacher I was a robust and resilient sort of leader, someone who could see his way through a long and challenging day, leave the school at 7pm and be ready for the fray at 7am the following day! I was very supportive with staff who found life difficult, was always ready with a listening ear and was proactive at dealing with stress in others. I didn’t think that stress had any long term impact on health as such and certainly not on me. In fact, I believed that I had a relatively healthy lifestyle, although at times I was aware that I drank too much wine in the evening, ate a lot of fast food, didn’t really exercise and kept a bottom draw of my desk for the pastries and sweet treats I needed to keep me going on a long day! But, hey, I was like most middle aged men, wasn’t I?
Not long after I left headship, I took my children on a half term break and found to my total consternation that I got up one day and literally was in agony putting one foot in front of another. My hips felt horrendously stiff and I felt worried for my health for the first time in my life. A trip to the doctor led to an x – ray at the hospital and shortly after the verdict from the GP – I had serious osteoarthritis and my hips were more typical of someone in their late 70s. The doctor said that I had to face the fact that I would be in pain for the rest of my life, that I would be best to take painkillers and that I would have to consider hip replacements in the future, but, with a hearty laugh, he finished my 10 – minute resume with “So let’s see how long we can keep you away from the man with the knife”. Feeling quite devastated, I asked him if there was anything I could do to make the condition improve, and he recommended that I see a physiotherapist and lose some weight. Otherwise, he said, there was little I could do to avoid the inevitable. I asked what might have caused the problem and was told it was “just wear and tear”.
I left the consultation with a heavy heart and then attended some cheerful sessions with a lovely physio and some other people who talked mostly about how painful life was on the NHS “Hip Pathway”. It seemed we were already in the waiting room for the “man with the knife” as hip replacement surgery was explained, we were told about which pills to pop for pain relief and a few useful exercises. In the last session, I walked out early and smashed my hands against the steering wheel shouting “This is not me” prompting a lady leaving the clinic to summon a nurse to come out and check if I was ok! I determined at that moment that I was not going to accept the inevitable and was going to search out every means possible of improving my condition and that it was not going to beat me.
Over the next few months I lost weight, checked out my diet in detail and found a wonderful website at www.patrickholford.com which allowed me to assess my health in all aspects and produced a plan for me to follow. I discovered that far from wear and tear (the standard explanation given on arthritis charity websites and the NHS) , the new explanations for osteoarthritis focused on inflammation at the joints caused by a poor lifestyle and exacerbated by chronic and high levels of stress! More than that, I read about how the condition could actually be improved without recourse to medical intervention. I suddenly saw my previous life as a Headteacher in a new light and for the first time in my adult life, I took stress and lifestyle seriously. Over the next year, I lost 3 stones in weight, I took a blood test to identify food intolerances that aggravated my hip problem and adjusted my diet to avoid wheat, eggs and processed food, walked the dog every day whatever the weather, and took some recommended multivitamins and supplements. I investigated the benefits of mindfulness, reflected on my tendency to ruminate on the negatives in my life and a typical capacity to beat myself up and explored how to make changes to my approach to life and wellbeing through a Masters degree in applied positive psychology. I read a great deal and reflected on what makes my life worthwhile and experience a great deal more gratitude for what I have, for my family and for the work I do, and think far less about what I and others might be lacking.
I now have virtually no symptoms of my osteoarthritis apart from occasional stiffness but no pain at all. My Patrick Holford health assessment puts my biological age at 43 compared to my actual age of 57; I feel great and some of my former colleagues remark on how very different I look these days! My experiences are what I share as part of my wellbeing and resilience courses such as The Human School Leader. The message is about the fact that looking after yourself is not a luxury but a necessity, and that it is possible with a few significant changes to live a healthy, vibrant and fulfilling life. As leaders, taking care of yourself sends a message to those in your organisation that mental, physical and emotional health is a high priority for us all and begins with those at the top showing leadership in this way. I have no doubt that we can all learn to create healthier workplaces which support our resilience day to day and enjoy life with our friends and family from a perspective of genuine personal wellbeing.