Increase in violence and stress hurting principals

Principals are well educated, live in stable families and are relatively well paid. Yet their self rated health is 10% worse than the general population, Journalist Sue Osborne writes.

The 2016 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing survey, sponsored by Teachers Health, has found principals are experiencing overwork, stress, threats and actual physical violence at much higher rates than the general population.

Now in its sixth year, the survey uses a large sample (5000 respondents) from across all school sectors – public and non government – to draw its conclusions.

Report author Associate Professor Philip Riley from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education has found a third of principals are working more than 60 hours a week.

Offensive behaviour simply must stop. We are
concerned about the steadily increasing levels
of offensive behaviour across the country in
schools of all types.


Principals are experiencing workplace demands that are 1.5 times higher than the general population. This makes them subject to higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), and depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).

One in three principals has experienced physical violence at school, a figure which is 29% up from the beginning of the survey. Professor Riley said if this trend continues, principals will experiences threats of violence at 10 times the rate of the general population next year.

On the plus side, principals experience more influence at work, feel more commitment and find their work more meaningful than the average person.

“Unfortunately employers know this and exploit it,” Professor Riley said.

Red flags

Principals are motivated to fill out the survey every year because they get feedback on their own health and wellbeing and their progress.

A small proportion of principals (9-10%) generated ‘red flag’ responses, suggesting they were at increased risk of mental and physical health issues.

Professor Riley said he used to respond to these ‘red flag principals’ with a personal email when the survey began six years ago, but now the numbers were so great an electronic response was required.

Principals reported stress was mainly caused by the “sheer quantity of administrative work” they were required to perform. They complained about suffering additional stress due to the lack of time available to focus on teaching and learning.


The prevalence rate for ‘threats of violence’ against principals is extremely high. In 2011, 38% of participants had been threatened. This rose to 44% by 2016.

“Close to 50% of principals have received threats in their workplaces. This is unacceptable and parents and students must show more restraint when dealing with school principals than resorting to violence, threats or intimidation to solve problems or help them manage their anger,” Professor Riley said.

“Those resorting to violence or intimidation when dealing with school leaders need to understand that such behaviour won’t solve problems and there are serious consequences from assaulting or intimidating school principals.”

Actual physical violence has risen from 27% in 2011 to 34% in 2016. In primary schools the perpetrator of violence is more likely to be a parent. In high schools it is more likely to be a student.

“This is happening across the board, in ‘elite’ non government schools, Catholic schools and public schools. I know of a case in which a non government school principal was pinned up against a brick wall by a barrister holding his elbow across his throat because of a dispute about fees.”

Professor Riley said threats and violence against principals and deputies was increasing sharply in NSW, NT, Tasmania and ACT and the upward trend in other states was less severe.

“Offensive behaviour simply must stop. We are concerned about the steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types.

“This is not just happening in schools. There is a similar trend being experienced in all frontline professions.

“Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root cause of this and set about addressing the issues at every level of society.

“If we improve the working conditions for principals and teachers we also improve the learning conditions for students, as the two are inseparable.”

Professor Riley said little is being done by private school employers, Catholic education offices or state and territory governments to ease the burden school principals are carrying.

“As principals are retiring, other senior teachers at the top of their game are saying they are not prepared to take on the role of school leader because of the punishing workload.

Reduce demands

“What every school system in Australia needs to urgently address are the levels of burnout, stress and additional responsibility being loaded onto principals.

“There is a decreasing level of personal support for principals from within the schools they lead and from their employers. That is a major concern.

“Educational employers can help by reducing job demands, or increase resources to cope with increasing demand.

“What also worries me is the pressure of work has become such a burden that many principals are suffering a decline in their health that will get worse unless they can find ways to reduce the pressure they are working under.”

Source of support

Most principals reported their main source of support were their partners (80%), work colleagues (67%) and friends (67%).

Only 26% said their main source of support was a supervisor or manager and even fewer, (6%) said they were supported mainly by the department of education or their employer.

To access the full survey: .

Professor Riley has proposed a similar health and well being survey be carried out for teachers. “I suspect we might get similar results for teachers, but we don’t have the data,” he said. Professor Riley is now seeking funding for this work.