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Health and Wellbeing survey reveals many principals feel overworked, stressed and often threatened

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The more things change the more they stay the same and being a school principal remains a hard-working, stressful occupation, which operates under the threat of violence and actual violence. Principals are also significantly unhappier than most everybody else, so says the latest Principal Health and Wellbeing survey.

The two greatest sources of stress are sheer quantity of work, and lack of time to focus on teaching and learning. The worrying trend over time has been the increase in stress caused by mental health issues of students and mental health issues of staff.

Principals and deputy/assistant principals experience far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population.

The prevalence rate for threats of violence is extremely high (in 2011, 38% of participants had been threatened. This rose to 44% by 2017; close to 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat).

Actual Physical Violence prevalence has risen from ~27% in 2011 to ~34% in 2016; 1 in 3 principals (now 8.4 times the rate of the general population, up from 7 times in 2011.

Adult-adult bullying has risen from ~34-36% (4.1-4.5 times higher than the general population); threats of violence (increased from 4.9-5.5 times higher).

The prevalence rates vary from state to state with concerning upward trends reported for Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. Only South Australia has consistently gone against this trend, and seen a fall in threats of violence during the survey period.

Despite having many predictive attributes for high scores on health and wellbeing, collectively principals and deputy/assistant principals score below the general population average.

All negative measures are higher than the general population (burnout-1.6 times the population; stress-1.7 times; sleeping troubles-2.2 times; depressive symptoms-1.3 times; somatic stress symptoms-1.3 times; cognitive stress symptoms-1.6 times).

So how can we make things easier on the school principal? The report identified four strategies that could be employed to smooth the way for those involved in the profession.

We could work on Improving the wellbeing of principals and deputy/assistant principals through Professional Support.

Principals and deputy/assistant principals mostly learn how to deal with the demanding emotional aspects of the role on the job, rather than through systematic preparation. In other professions, such as psychology and social work, where highly charged emotional interactions occur, high levels of professional support and debriefing are standard procedure. This is not so in education. As a result, the average principals’ and deputy/assistant principals’ wellbeing survey scores are lower than the average citizen.

However, there is a lot of variation and distinct differences between the principals and deputy/assistant principals who appear to be coping well with the complexity of the role and those who are not. Professional support is a strong predictor of coping with the stresses of the role (job demands). Therefore, policies need to be developed that address this issue directly.

The principals and deputy/assistant principals identified as coping least well with their daily tasks had the lowest levels of professional support from colleagues and superiors while those who coped the best reported the highest levels of professional support.

Another strategy is to provide opportunities for principals and deputy/assistant principals to engage in professional support networks on a regular basis.

Networks would need to be determined locally, contextually and formally, and provide opportunities for informal support alongside formal support.

A provision of time for principals and deputy/assistant principals to build and maintain professional support networks would be needed. This could be augmented by experienced principal mentors, perhaps retired principals, visiting schools to provide support in the form of professional conversations (‘agendaless’ meetings) allowing school principals and deputy/assistant principals time to discuss the day-to-day functioning of their schools with a sympathetic, experienced colleague.

Systematic attention needs to be paid to the professional learning of principals and deputy/assistant principals, as targeted professional support. There is a considerable need for skill development in the emotional aspects of the leadership role, dealing with the highs and lows associated with the emotional investment of parents in their children. In-service provision of education on the emotional aspects of teaching, learning, organizational function, emotional labour, dealing with difficulties and conflicts in the workplace, employee assistance programs, debriefing self and others would be a great benefit.

Targeted professional learning is likely to make principals and deputy/assistant principals feel better supported than they currently report. Provision of ongoing professional learning is likely to assist all principals and deputy/assistant principals in two ways. First, by skill improvement and secondly through the benefits of increased perceptions of support.

We could review the work practices of Principals and deputy/assistant principals in light of the Job Demands-Resources Model of organizational health.

Stress and psychological risk at work can be conceptualised through the balance of job demands (e.g., workload, time pressures, physical environment, emotional labour) and job resources (e.g., feedback, rewards, control, job security, support).

Work demands and available resources need to be in balance for good psychological health at work. High job demands lead to exhaustion while low job resources lead to disengagement, both symptoms of job burnout.

However, high job resources buffer job demands, reducing their negative impact on individuals. Principals and deputies/assistants report very high demands, out of balance with available resources to buffer the demands.

The average hours spent at work by principals and deputies/assistants ranges between 51-60 hours per week during term time and 25-30 hours per week during holiday periods.

Too many participants in the survey are working too many hours and it is taking a toll on their greatest support group; their families. Work-Family conflict occurs at approximately double the rate for the population generally.

The amount of emotional labour expected of principals and deputies/assistants is 1.7-times that of the population. When job demands are this high, they need to be balanced with significant resources to buffer the demands. Therefore, all stakeholders need to be consulted about ways in which this can be achieved.

What is clear is that this level of demand is dangerous to the long-term health and wellbeing of principals who find consistently that the resources available to them are not concomitant with the demands.

There is an urgent need to establish an independent authority to investigate three types of offensive behavior identified as consistently occurring in schools:

  • Adult-adult bullying
  • Threats of violence
  • Actual violence

The authority should be independent from all stakeholder groups in schools and government. Specifically, the task force authority should have powers to interview teachers, parents and students, to investigate:

  • Differences in the occupational risk of the different types of principals and deputy/assistant principals, to determine who are most at risk, why and what can be done to protect them.
  • Whether/how the risk also extends to teachers and students.
  • Governance structures, information flow between adults, and external influences on school functioning.

The consequences of offensive behaviour in schools are likely to become costly for employers, through time lost to ill health, OH&S claims against employers’ responsibility for not providing a safe working environment and reduced functioning while at work as a result of the high levels of offensive behavior in the workplace. Therefore, the investment in such a taskforce may prove to be the least expensive option in relation to this issue. The cost to mental health is high. Price Waterhouse Coopers have recently conducted a Return on Investment for addressing mental health in the workplace. They found that the impact of not addressing it amounted to $10.6 billion annually.

However, they also reported that every dollar spent on addressing the issue returned $2.30. So, addressing the problem in schools is also a good investment for the future of the nation.


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