The years 2020 and 2021 might be summed up as being chaotic and exhausting for school leaders. If workloads weren’t already big enough, the Covid pandemic supersized them. Fortunately, the rolling lockdowns, and the pivot to remote learning, are a thing of the past – yet principals’ workloads remain extremely high.
In March, The Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey found that Australian principals are experiencing record levels of stress and burnout.
The study found that principals and their deputies worked on average at least 55 hours a week, while a quarter of those reported working more than 60 hours a week.
As anyone who has ever suffered it knows, burnout and its five stages can have a devastating impact on one’s physical and mental health, and experts say it is important to exercise some preventative measures so that it doesn’t creep up on us.
Below, peak performance coach Dr Adam Fraser, ACU education expert Dr Paul Kidson, and Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek share some tips for leaders to avoid burnout.
Delegate where possible
Research by peak performance coach Dr Adam Fraser shows that teachers and principals often have a block to delegation because they feel like they're just unloading their work onto other people. “But without proper delegation, you'll never get the job done,” Fraser said. “Delegating important tasks to other people, builds their capacity and actually builds connection with that person.”
Work in 50-minute chunks
Dr Fraser also offers some good advice for teachers who tend to spend an excessive amount of time working at their desk. In an interview with The Educator, Dr Fraser noted that recent research shows the brain can really only concentrate and be productive for about 50 minutes in a long stretch, so what you want to do is work really hard and be very planned about what you want to achieve in that 50-minutes, completely immerse yourself in it and then have a break.
Dr Paul Kidson is a senior lecturer of educational leadership at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), who has worked on the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Surveys. He says it is important that educators remain present amid their busy and complex workload. “When more students and staff return to campus, it’s important to prioritise the relational connections ahead of the operational and administrative,” Dr Kidson told The Educator. “A welcoming atmosphere is key, and school leaders set much of this tone.” Dr Kidson said that where possible, educators should make a point of visiting each staff work area and connect personally to as many staff as they can in the time they have.
Make lists of things you can and cannot control
An article that appeared on the website of Go Guardian, a US-based educational technology company founded in 2014, offers some helpful tips that teachers can use to claw back some of that precious time they miss amid the administrative avalanche. Making lists of what you can and cannot control creates a sense of balance and brings peace. For example, you may not know if your contract will be renewed next year. As opposed to worrying yourself sick about uncertainties, be proactive and think positively. Engage in stress-reduction strategies, like meditation and breathing. Recognize your strengths as an instructor and as an individual.
Draw a line
Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, has worked in education for more than 50 years now, so he’s learned a thing or two when it comes to managing stress. He says a particularly helpful practice has been recognising the limitations of what he can and cannot do within the confines of his busy role. “Over time, I’ve learned to worry less about that over which I can do little, and that requires a bit of psychological discipline,” he told The Educator. “I ask myself ‘have I done the best I can?’ rather than ‘what more can I do?’. There’s a line you have to draw, or you will go down, and you will drag your school and your family down, too.” Grossek said that while it’s unrealistic to expect that all of the pressure can disappear overnight, getting it back to a manageable level is doable.