New survey to explore impact of ‘emotional labour’ on principals

New survey to explore impact of ‘emotional labour’ on principals

A new survey will explore the intensifying emotional demands placed on public school principals across Australia to expose and examine the root causes of the profession’s worsening health and wellbeing.

The Monash University study follows a recent report from the Victorian Auditor-General, which found the state’s education department is not effectively protecting the health and wellbeing of its school principals, despite implementing 28 initiatives since 2018.

Principals reported working an average of 55 hours per week during school term and 21 hours per week during school holidays in 2022. Averaged over a year, they reported working 94 hours per fortnight – 18 hours more than their ‘ordinary hours of work’. The report went on to point out that there has been "no material change" in working hours since at least 2015.

The report notes the department “needs to better monitor, evaluate, and report on those outcomes so that it can better-understand principals’ health and wellbeing, and whether its initiatives are leading to desired outcomes.”

The new Monash University study provides a chance for principals in public schools to tell their stories about how these demands are impacting the nature of their work, and aims to provide new understandings of the changing nature of the principals’ role when it comes to these emotional demands.

The survey will also give the public a glimpse into the nature and complexity of this work through a publicly available website that curates, in de-identified form, some of the principals’ stories.

‘Emotional labour’ is straining leaders

Professor Lucas Walsh, Chief Investigator and Director of The Monash Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice at Monash University, said intensifying emotional demands are altering the traditional roles of principals and shaping new trends in school leadership.

“We know that principals’ work is stressful, involving a constant juggle of often-conflicting demands of students, staff, parents and carers, amongst others. What is new is the intensified emotional management work of school leadership,” Professor Walsh told The Educator.

“Managing one’s emotions and navigating those of others - ‘emotional labour’ - is widely recognised as a crucial aspect of principals’ work, but little is known about it.”

Professor Walsh said managing competing demands, and the emotional capacity to switch seamlessly between interactions with diverse members of school communities, can in turn affect health and wellbeing, including chronic stress, burnout and lower job satisfaction.

“Our pilot study of Victorian schools, which led to this current study, identified how these intensified emotional demands called upon less visible but crucial leadership skills, such as trauma-informed leadership, community building and the emotional management capacities to connect across diverse people and communities,” he said.

“A subsequent survey of public-school leaders found that many felt practically and emotionally ill-prepared and ill-equipped to do this emotional labour, despite its crucial nature. The necessary emotional management capacities are largely invisible in the research, education policies and workforce development – hence this larger scale project.”

Getting to the roof of the problem

Dr Fiona Longmuir, Chief Investigator and Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at Monash University hopes the survey will positively impact the perception and understanding of school leaders' roles among parents, departments and other key stakeholders.

“It’s only through such efforts to expose and examine the root causes of poor principal health and wellbeing that changes might be possible and the dire situations in our schools be addressed. This is what the Victorian Auditor-General report, as well as Victoria’s principals, are hoping for,” Dr Longmuir told The Educator.

“One of the key goals of this study is to amplify the voices of those doing the everyday leadership work in schools. We know this work is complex and challenging. In modern schooling environments, principals need to be seen as calm, confident and capable, but often they are ‘paddling underwater’ to manage competing demands and to navigate the complex emotional situations that regularly occur in school environments.”

Dr Longmuir said this 'invisible' work can take a toll on their own health and wellbeing, as is regularly seen in research such as the ACU Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing survey.

“In this project, by shining a light on the emotional aspects of school leadership work through collecting and sharing real stories from those in schools, we hope to deepen public understanding of, and appreciation for, the work of principals and also inform policy responses that will better support the work of school leaders.”