2021 Principal Survey

School leader safety needs a principled approach

Australian school principals have endured extraordinary levels of stress and disruption in the past few years and, understandably, their mental health has been impacted, write Emily Campbell and Sue Osborne.

For the past 11 years, researchers from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE) at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Deakin University have conducted an annual survey to examine the occupational health, safety and wellbeing of Australian school principals.

The latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey results from 2021 paint a dire picture, with principals facing appalling and increasing levels of abuse and violence compared to previous years.

The ongoing impact of COVID-19, coupled with other traumatic natural events including floods and bushfires, have worsened the risks of long-term damage to principals’ health and wellbeing, according to the researchers.

Independent Education Union Acting Federal Secretary Christine Cooper said the 2021 results were alarming but unsurprising.

“Principals have been burdened with increasingly demanding workloads and complexity in their roles due the implications of the pandemic,” Cooper said.

“Our members, throughout all branches, have worked longer hours, experienced higher levels of stress and uncertainty whilst being subjected to violence and threats at a much higher rate than the general population.

“Principals have been required to act on government and health advice at short notice and manage lockdowns, remote learning and other pandemic consequences like acute staff shortages which is leading to burnout.

“It’s very concerning that a third of principal survey respondents this year triggered the ‘red flag’ warning after completing the questions,” she said.

A “red flag” alert is sent to principals when their responses to the survey indicate they are at high or very high risk in three or more survey categories.

Key research findings

The report confirmed some worrying trends in the rates of principals’ psychological ill-health and raised concerns as to how principals can possibly sustain working under such conditions.

“IEU members understand the increasing pressures on the teaching profession and particularly those in leadership, which is reflected in these results,” Cooper said.

“Concerningly, it suggests school leaders are at a higher risk of burnout than ever before.”

Key findings of the 2021 report included:

  • Principals working an average of 55.6 hours per week, which equates to working from 8am to 7.30pm.
  • A quarter of school leaders reporting working over 60 hours per week during school term, which equates to working a 12-hour day 5 days per week.
  • 62.4 percent of principals reporting partial and/or complete school closures, up from 26.1percent the previous year.
  • Principals facing the highest levels of burnout and cognitive stress since the survey began 11 years ago.
  • Younger and less experienced school principals are especially impacted and are enduring higher levels of stress and degradation of their health and wellbeing than more experienced school leaders.
  • Women principals reporting higher stress resulting from demands at work compared with men.

Offensive behaviours unacceptable

Appallingly, 84 percent of respondents reported being subjected to at least one form of offensive behaviour in 2021, up from 83.5 percent last year.

Half of all school leaders reported being targeted by three or more forms of offensive behaviour in 2021, including threats of violence, physical violence, bullying, cyber-bullying, gossip, slander, teasing and sexual harassment.

During 2020, rates of offensive behaviours against school principals decreased, bucking an alarming growth trajectory.

However, in 2021, the rates increased again, including offensive behaviours perpetrated by parents and carers of students.

Ms Cooper said it was unacceptable that principals are subjected to such frequent offensive behaviour and violence in the workplace simply for doing their job.

“The results indicate Australian school principals experience threats of violence at 5.7 times greater than the general population, actual physical violence 10.1 times greater than the general population and bullying four times greater than the general population.

“This is a severe work health and safety issue and there should be zero tolerance for this behaviour against principals.

“They are skilled professionals and leaders who deserve safe and respectful workplaces,” Cooper said.

Some welcome insights

Despite these confronting results, the report noted there was a silver lining to the tumultuous COVID-19 period for principals and schools.

“Principals were a beacon of hope and showed outstanding leadership at a time when communities faced unprecedented challenges and disruption,” Cooper said.

“School leaders and their deputies adeptly managed the school closures and the transition to remote learning, which would have been even more difficult if not for their dedication and tireless support.”

The authors noted there were some positive findings which reinforced the vital role school principals play in schools and the broader community, with 82 percent of principals reporting increased parent/carer engagementin 2021.

“Australian school leaders exhibited many strengths during 2021, with extended COVID-19 lockdowns requiring open and continuous communication from school leaders,” the report said.

“Principals increased their connection with families and they provided critical support to students, staff, parents and their communities.

“The pandemic resulted in greater public recognition of school principals and through uncertainty and change, principals continued to lead, guide and support their school communities.”

In addition, principals reported higher levels of satisfaction regarding meaning of work, commitment to the workplace and self-efficacy.

Cooper said the past few years and its challenges had reinforced the importance of strong leadership in school communities.

“The report also identified that social support from external colleagues continued to increase and is at an all-time high, showing the importance of solidarity and collegial relationships to the profession, particularly for leaders,” Cooper said.

“However, simply thanking principals for their immense effort is not enough.

“The most recent results are a stark reminder that not enough is being done to prevent burnout, reduce stress and improve the mental health and wellbeing of school principals,” she said.

Principal member experiences

One principal member said COVID-19 intensified their workload and they were unable to work from home due to a high number of frontline worker parents.

“I was constantly working on updates to families and checking in with teachers and managing ‘a million’ complaints and queries,” the member said.

“The fatigue and stress of COVID has meant much less resilience in student and staff behaviour.

“Students came back to school and had to learn how to socialise again, staff came back and had to learn how to behaviour manage students who would not normally give them problems.

“It has been a very tense two years and everyone is fatigued.

“My connection to my school community has grown but so has the expectation that I will fix every little problem.

“The job description of a principal would rival that of a CEO of any company, yet the salary is not indicative of the hours worked each week and the level of responsibility held.”

Another principal member spoke of the need for mentoring, both formal and informal, so principals have a comprehensive support plan and regular time out to discuss issues and seek help.

“Principalship can be a lonely and confronting position and most principals would benefit from non-judgemental accompaniment and companionship,” they said.

“Currently, support is often provided as remediation, not prevention.

“A significant problem is that many outstanding candidates for principalship look at the current workloads and arrangements and see the toll it can take and ask themselves is it worth the effort.

“We should continue to explore new models of principalship such as co-principals, cluster groupings of principals and principals in residence.

“Periodic time away from the role to reflect and discern on goals and aspirations would be good.

“We need the ‘mental space’ to be able give attention to their resilience and to endorse their continuing commitment to the role,” they said.

Union makes a difference

The report made 14 recommendations to improve the health and wellbeing of school leaders, although these would benefit all school staff who are negatively impacted by increased workload, burnout and psychological injuries.

Fundamentally, the 2021 results showed that we need to:

  • support school leaders by reshaping work practices, role demands and targeting professional learning; and
  • create a shared dialogue to address bullying and violence.
  • One principal member said the survey results validated what most principals know about their work.

    “There will be deflection and redirection of accountability by systems and central offices, with the implication that the responsibility for principal resilience and ultimate health lies with the individual,” they said.

    “What other workers are required to take full responsibility for their own health and safety irrespective of the work they do?

    “If a principal appears to be struggling often it is seen as a leadership and management issue, not a wellbeing concern.”

    Cooper said principals and all school leaders must have greater professional autonomy and arbitrary workload demands must be reduced as a matter of urgency.

    “The various IEU branches have represented principals who do not have the autonomous right to hire and fire since the 1980s, during which time members have already won conditions that have made a difference to the profession.

    “Union membership is vital to eligible principals so they can have access to individual representation on issues when needed, but also for the benefits secured through collective bargaining.

    “IEU members have campaigned and fought for a range of provisions to address and help manage workplace stress and enhance wellbeing.

    “During that time, collective bargaining has achieved positive outcomes and improved conditions specifically for our principal members, including provisions such as professional renewal leave, increased individual remuneration for working at a school with special characteristics, wage increases and improved classification structures.

    “These provisions aim to provide meaningful interventions to help members in maintaining their wellbeing at work.

    “We would urge principal members to make use of these very important provisions and entitlements as per our union negotiated collective agreements.

    “Principal members must continue to amplify their demands for better wellbeing initiatives and support measures which are covered under their collective agreements. “Collectively, our union branches must ensure workload and wellbeing issues are on the agenda with employers – our principals and schools deserve better,” Cooper said.

    We encourage any current principal members to reach out to their IEU branch for support if needed and welcome non-member school leaders to join our community today.

    Read the full report at https://www.healthandwellbeing.org/principal-reports