A growing number of school leaders are being pushed to the brink by massive workloads and conflict with the parent community, the latest study into principal health and wellbeing has revealed.
The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2019, released by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Deakin University today, found that nearly one in three principals face stress and burnout, as well as high levels of threats and physical violence by parents and students.
More than 84% of school leaders reported being subjected to an offensive behaviour over the last year, with 51% reported having received threats of violence, and over 42% being exposed to physical violence.
In Western Australia, an alarming 60% of principals reported being on the receiving end of physical violence, while 62% reported threats of violence.
Compared to the general population, a far higher percentage of school leaders reported being subjected to threats of violence (51% versus 7.8%), physical violence (42.2% versus 3.9%), bullying (37.6% versus 8.3%), conflicts and quarrels (57.5% versus 51.2%), and gossip and slander (50.9% versus 38.9%).
ACU Institute for Positive Psychology and Education’s (IPPE) Research Fellow, Dr Theresa Dicke, said that when compared to the general population, school leaders also reported higher emotional demands, demands for hiding emotions, and work-family conflict.
“For health and wellbeing, school leaders reported very high levels of burnout, sleeping troubles, and stress compared to the general population,” Dr Dicke told The Educator.
“These factors, which are a risk to school leaders’ long-term health and even their life expectancy, are not isolated to school sector, school type, socioeconomic background or geolocation, only the degree of occurrence differs”.
‘Too distracted to focus on teaching and learning’
Another alarming takeaway from the report, said Dr Dicke, was that principals are working much longer hours.
Principals are working an average of about 55.2 hours a week during the school term, with approximately 97.3% reporting they work over 40 hours a week. Approximately 72.4% reported working over 50 hours a week.
“Consequently, school leaders continue to report sheer quantity of work, lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, as their main sources of stress,” Dr Dicke said.
Since it first commenced in 2011, the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health Safety and Wellbeing Survey has heard from more than 50% of Australia’s 10,000 school principals.
Consistently over this period, hours worked, violence perpetrated and threatened against principals and principal general health have not improved, in some instances have worsened.
A critical issue that is increasingly taking up a lot of time for school leaders, is the mental wellbeing of their students, says Dr Dicke.
“Mental health of students and staff has become an increasing source of stress for participants in recent years, with it being highest in 2019”.
The good news…
Professor Philip Riley from Deakin University’s School of Education, said while there was no shortage of gloom in the report, mass disruptions to school and home life during COVID-19 could trigger “a welcome uplift in community appreciation for the ongoing and unforeseen challenges faced by school principals”.
“The sudden changes to education delivery prompted by COVID-19 restrictions required an unprecedented response by school leaders to roll-out remote learning opportunities for their students,” Professor Riley said.
“We know from anecdotal evidence that many parents, although impacted themselves, are deeply appreciative of this work by principals and educators”.
Professor Riley said he hopes this points to a future in which “there is greater awareness and acknowledgement of the many stresses and challenges that principals face on a regular basis as they lead their students and staff”.
Victorian Principals’ Association president Anne-Maree Kliman, a former principal of 15 years, shares Professor Riley’s hope.
“As the report shows, we still need to see a culture shift in Australia around violence, aggression and abuse against workers,” Kliman told The Educator.
“We’re certainly seeing a growing appreciation and gratitude in the community, at least in Victoria, for the work that our schools are doing”.
Kliman said if this culture shift can be achieved, schools are likely to see a big decline in aggression and abuse against teachers in the coming years.
“Right now, there’s an opportunity for shared appreciation, not just of what schools are going through but what home life is like…and this can help bridge the divides that have existed between schools and parents”.
Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) is appealing to parents and the community to remain calm and supportive as schools resume their operations after COVID-19.
“We ask governments to authentically engage with principal associations to problem solve educational issues,” ASPA president, Andrew Pierpoint, said.
“Principals lead large, complex organisations and should be at the forefront of any decisions affecting our Nation’s greatest resource – our youth”.