A matter of principals

The health and wellbeing of school principals throughout Australia has been the subject of research for a decade. Journalist Sue Osborne looks at results and recommendations.

The annual Australian Principal Occupational, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey has produced some shocking results about abuse and violence principals experience at the hands of parents and students.

However, the findings of this annual survey, conducted by researchers at Deakin University and the Australian Catholic University (ACU), are being used as a catalyst for positive change in the workplace, such as a recommendation to make online meetings between parents and principals the norm to reduce the risk of abuse and threats.

Tough times in 2020

The 2020 survey garnered responses from 2248 principals. Not surprisingly, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, bushfires and floods, its results show principals faced increasing stress and heavy workloads.

“The extremely long work hours and constant exposure to stress during 2020 left school principals exhausted,” said Professor Herb Marsh, Co-chief investigator for the survey and educational psychologist at the ACU Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE).

“During 2020, almost all principals (97 percent) worked overtime and close to 70 percent worked more than 56 hours a week during school term, and 25 hours a week during the holidays.

“The main sources of stress were the sheer quantity of work, the lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, the mental health issues of students and the expectations of the employer.

“During the survey period, three out of 10 school leaders (almost 30 percent) received a red flag email alerting them to contact employee support services. These alert emails are triggered when school leaders are at risk of self-harm, occupational health problems or serious impacts to their quality of life.”

ACU investigator and IPPE Professor Phil Parker said, “Over the past decade, principals have reported a steady increase in job demands with no real increase in support services. The surveys have shown us that school leaders need support to maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

But on a positive note, the survey found better results for short-term measures of influence, commitment to the workplace, role conflict, social support from internal/external colleagues, social support from supervisors, and work-family conflict.

COVID amps up issues

Deakin University’s Professor Phil Riley and co-chief investigator said the survey shone a light on “a year like no other” for school leaders.

“Last year was one of unimaginable horrors for Australians and the global pandemic had a life-altering effect on us all,” Professor Riley said.

“But 2020 showed us that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

“As well as needing to quickly develop online learning practices, school principals were faced with managing COVID-safe processes to protect their employees, students, and parents from a global pandemic.

“Although schools were classed as essential services, and told to stay open to protect the economy, they were not privy to vital information. Particularly at the start of COVID-19, school leaders had to listen to the news to find out what to do with their schools’ operations.”

However, Professor Riley said there was a bright spot, “The survey has shown us the pandemic’s lockdowns and restrictions reminded communities about the vital role school leaders play. Ironically, COVID-19 could herald a positive shift in community attitudes towards school principals.”

Key recommendations

There were 16 key recommendations in the report including an urgent need to establish an independent taskforce to fully investigate the offensive behaviours occurring in schools.

Other recommendations included a call for standardisation and risk management of online meetings with parents to ensure quality control and reduce offensive behaviours. Online meetings are likely to be more convenient for parents and principals.

Employers need to take the moral choice of reducing job demands or increase job resources to allow school leaders to cope with the increased workload.

Professional associations and unions should collaborate and speak with one voice. A united voice would be stronger for achieving change. In Finland, for example, there is one union that advocates for all educators.

Federal, state and territory governments should come together to maintain a single education budget in a managerial way.

All school funding should be transparent so that anyone, at any level of the system, can confidently know how much money schools have.

There is a need to systematically research potential strategies and new policies before they are rolled out on a large scale. In medicine, for example, it would be unheard of to put in place large new programs without adequate efficacy and safety tests. The same should be true in education.

What can principals do?

  • Increase personal capital (social, human and decisional). At the individual level this means increasing possibilities for development and exerting influence over work, based on sound values and moral judgements.
  • Respectfully speak up when faced with ‘moral harassment’, which can lead to moral stress, an occupational threat. Moral stress stems from not being able to perform the role that one feels morally obliged to do. This is quite demotivating. Moral stress is generated when interference or even blocking of professional behaviours guided by moral purpose occurs.
  • Ensure your passions are harmonious, not obsessive. Love your work but do not let it dominate your life. A way to determine if passion is harmonious rather than obsessive is to monitor energy levels. Harmonious passion energises, individuals feel better after engaging in their passion than when they began. For example, principals should monitor and maintain friendships and relationships with family and loved ones, be sure to flag unrealistic work burdens and take the time they need in order to rest.
  • Take responsibility for your personal work-life balance. Only you can know what is reasonable for your long-term health and wellbeing. It is therefore incumbent on the individual to find and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  • A work-life balance should not be imposed by others. The negative impact of poor work-life balance highlights that establishing one’s own balance is far too important to be left in someone else’s control. Principals must seek professional help where necessary, such as employer provided professional employee assistance programs.

Making progress

Over the 10 years of the report, important progress has been made in key areas. There is increased government recognition of the issue of violence in schools with several inquiries underway at the state, territory, and federal level.

The report has shone a light on the burden of stress and overwork among principals and significant policy changes have been made to benefit principals, particularly in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. For example, the establishment of the Victorian Policy Bank has helped ease the workload of principals in that state.

The survey report is available here: www.healthandwellbeing.org/reports/AU/2020_AU_Final_Report.pdf

Offensive behaviours

More than 40 percent of principals reported being exposed to threats of violence or being a victim of physical violence in 2020. This is up to nine times greater than the general population. However, several categories of offensive behaviours decreased, which is attributed to the reduced face-to-face contact with parents.

Over the 10-year lifespan of the survey, there was a steady increase in bullying, physical violence, slander, sexual harassment, threats of violence and verbal harassment towards principals.