Survey finds principals suffering high rates of burnout

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.”

Key findings
44 percent (5.7 times more than the general population) of school leaders were subjected to threats of violence
39 percent (10.1 times more than the general population) were subjected to physical violence
Burnout (physical and mental fatigue) and cognitive stress levels were the highest since the survey started in 2011.

Looming shortages

Another principal with decades of experience told the IEU that government and employers have known (or should have known) for the past decade about the looming staff shortages but have done little or nothing about it.

She said casuals are almost impossible to obtain and she is fearful of not being able to fill a temporary maternity leave position at her school.

When a staff member tells her that they are pregnant, she wants to be able to react with delight, but her underlying feeling is fear at not being able to find a temporary replacement.

Leadership issue

Another recently retired principal from a Catholic systemic school said:

“I often look at these reports with a mixed response – on the one hand it validates what most principals know about their work; while on the other, you know 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.

“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.

“The issue for most principals comes down to the irreconcilable duality of their work. Foremost, you are challenged to be the inspirational, collaborative, creative leader driving the learning and change agenda within your school, but always present is the pedantic, time consuming deadline driven compliance in all manner of areas.

“I once received a most urgent demand from central office requiring an immediate response regarding garbage collection services used by the school! This was sent to the principal for response! This duality across the work of principals is misplaced, frustrating and not sustainable.

“Often systems will attempt to do something to assist; for example, principal retreats and professional development events or providing a small amount of additional staffing to cover the needs of the principals.

“Most appreciated the gatherings but knew that urgent work awaited them at school.

“A significant problem now and moving forward 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?'.

“Employers have a problem attracting quality candidates for schools especially in difficult and challenging areas and resort to “shifting deck chairs” by moving established principals from other schools into these positions.

Mentoring needed

“We need mentoring – both formal and informal. Principals and employers need to develop a comprehensive support and mentoring plan. Not just a tick a box or fill in the ‘How are you going’ form but rather regular time out to discuss issues and seek support.

“Principalship can be a lonely and confronting position and most principals would benefit from non-judgemental accompaniment and companionship. Currently, support is often provided as remediation not prevention.

“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. Principals need the ‘mental’ space to be able give attention to their resilience and to endorse their continuing commitment to the role.

“Principals need the resources, space and confidence to make decisions based on the principles of subsidiarity, not just in line with broader system policies, derived accountabilities, structures or budgets.

“Principals do a remarkable job for little monetary return. The report highlights the challenges of principalship and provides practical avenues of redress. Let us hope employers and systems explore these avenues, otherwise we shall see shortages and a failure to provide the quality leadership needed in contemporary schools.”

Sue Osborne