Every year since 2011, the Australian Catholic University has partnered with Deakin University to survey principals on their sense of wellbeing at work. Unfortunately, the findings have repeatedly shown principals are under stress, and the situation is not improving.
The ACU's Institute for Positive Psychology and Education’s (IPPE) Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey 2021, found brutal workloads, critical staff shortages, lockdowns and COVID-19 have hit principals hard.
Last year’s survey found the highest burnout rates in a decade for Australian school leaders. Twenty-nine percent were deemed “at risk” for mental health and self-harm.
But on the plus side, 82 percent of principals reported increased connection with their school families.
“While confronting in many ways, school leaders have been champions of resilience, professionalism, and unyielding commitment to their school communities,” IPPE co-chief investigator Dr Theresa Dicke said.
“In times of crisis, they deliver, but for how long? Principals play a vital role in communities, so our overriding message is for the shameful treatment of our overburdened educators to stop,” Dicke said.
Co-chief investigator IPPE Professor Herb Marsh said the soaring demands on principals were unsustainable. “Principals and their deputies worked on average at least 55 hours a week,” Marsh said. “A quarter of those reported working more than 60 hours a week so it’s unsurprising the sheer quantity of work is the top stress factor.”
The compounding stresses could be addressed by a more inclusive and empathetic approach to policy development, the survey authors said.
What you said
Here’s what one principal said about her working life:
“I’ve been a principal for 17 years and have over the years been subject to some very angry parents. One mother told my secretary she was coming down to ‘take my f****** head off’ – after a tense discussion she left my office realising her son was in the wrong and she supported me.
“Another time I had a mother say, ‘you don’t want my husband to have to come down and speak to you’ – equally intimidating.
“I’ve had several phone calls where parents have yelled at me down the phone. One mother told me I was ‘nothing more than a f***** c***’ and when I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ she hung up.
“I had one dad really tear into me but apologised the next day – that is rare that you get an apology. I’ve had a father want to see me after I’d been to the family law court and given evidence against him. That was frightening.
“COVID doubled my workload initially. I did not get to spend one day working from home as we have 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 fatigue and stress of COVID has meant much less resilience in student and staff behaviour.
“We are inundated with problems that should not be problems. Students came back to school and had to learn how to socialise again. Staff came back and had to learn how to manage the behaviour of 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.
“We need employers to see the holistic education we provide and celebrate everything, not just Band 6s. NAPLAN is not the only measure of a child’s worth – triangulate the data and take off the pressure to home in on one data set to solve every child’s learning needs.
“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.”