Tough at the top in our schools

The extreme demands on school leadership roles show that heavier workloads are creating pressure on school principals’ health and wellness. CCI’s Principal Health and Wellness Report should set off alarm bells that signal a call to action to address the issue.

Associate Professor Dr. Philip Riley led the investigation for The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness Survey 2017.

His team asked school principals to take part, and the trends that emerged will benefit policy makers in a “State of the Nation” report on costs and benefits of initiatives, such as the introduction of a national curriculum and changes to national testing and accountability requirements. More importantly, the report should serve the broader school community in creating awareness of what is now a critical issue for schools, nationally. Understanding the problems they face is an important first step that will surely benefit our principals.

Greg Casey
Greg Casey

Hours of work

Principals spend long hours at work, and it’s an increasing trend that takes a toll on physical and mental health.

Greg Casey is the school principal for Marymount Primary School at Burleigh Heads in Queensland. He works an average 10 to 12 hours a day.

“Most weeks the days are long because of meetings. Some days are a 6.30 am start and I don’t get home until 9pm. There are meetings with parents and friends groups, school boards, parish and pastoral council meetings, and of course staff meetings, and individual requests by parents for meetings.”

Professor Riley’s report noted an average 53% of principals work more than 56 hours per week during term, and even during school holidays almost a third work 25 to 30 hours per week. This creates a work-family conflict for a principal to be twice more likely to occur than for the rest of the population, and families are now also feeling the strain.

“Average working hours remain too high for a healthy lifestyle to be maintained.” – The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness Survey 2017

Work demands

The greatest stressors are quantity of work, and lack of time to focus on teaching and learning. A worrying trend is increasing stress for school leaders because of the mental health issues of staff and students. In fact, Casey describes working with staff as one of the “heaviest pressures on our workload”.

“There are teachers who are new to the system, teachers dealing with issues with parents, sometimes children. People work is the biggest stress. We have a leadership team and an employer who supports the sharing of leadership demands. Brisbane Catholic Education is a good support and the policies, procedures, and guidelines help. These support our senior leaders.”

Another problem typical among principals is the imbalance of resources available to meet such high demands, and it’s a situation that invariably leads to a level of emotional stress. If left unchecked, it has the potential to create long-term mental health damage for principals. Casey says that Brisbane Catholic Education provide good frameworks, but this isn’t the case for all principals around the country.

“There are times we feel run down. The emotional toll is hard for some and time is always limited. I need to prioritise important things. Sometimes it’s lonely, but I know there is support through Brisbane Catholic Primary Principals Association. Secondary schools have a similar set up. A principals debriefing group is an informal network space for school leaders to meet monthly. There are other informal networks and I can ring colleagues when I feel the need to talk.”

Bullying and offensive behaviour

One alarming finding from the report was the prevalence of offensive behaviour. Principals are more likely to be subjected to offensive behaviour and other invisible emotional demands than the general population. Since 2011, the average number of principals who received a threat of violence increased from 38% to 44% in 2017. This represents close to an extraordinary 1 in 2 principals.

“I have industry peers and colleagues who had to address bullying and violence at different times in their work. I’ve had discussions myself that were quite confronting,” says Casey adding “there have been threats by the unions as well, through teachers, which is very difficult to deal with and that has been an issue for some of my colleagues.”

“As a principal you always try to second-guess yourself, and ask what could I have done better? It’s the people management that’s the real key to this issue. I get really hurt when a parent comes to me and says my child has been bullied for six months and you’ve done nothing about it.”

Stress and emotional demands result in higher burnout rates for principals and for teachers too compared to the general population.

“At the end of the year when the school shuts down, so does the body. Staff commonly get colds during the school break, and realise their body and immune system is in need of repair. They can end up having recovery time rather than recreational time off.”

Government and employers will need to urgently exercise their responsibility to provide a balanced and safe work environment, and address bullying and violence if they are to improve the wellbeing of Australia’s school leaders. Failure to do so could conceivably result in a class action against them. Potential OH&S claims against employers are likely to be costly not only through time lost due to ill health, but because claims are likely to be psychiatric, and employers need to digest the fact that teachers as well as principals are facing increasing mental pressure in their workloads.

“The Naplan issue is always something that makes teachers feel the pressure and it’s not a fair assessment of their teaching ability. Teachers are becoming more aware of the challenges for principals now,” says Casey. “It’s important for schools to make known what their main goals are so everyone knows the direction they’re heading in. Staff need to be aware of our system goals.”

Professional support and learning is the key to coping

The report outlines key strategies for improving the wellbeing of principals. Professional support is critical, with networks playing a vital role in allowing principals to connect with others including former school principals who can act as mentors.

Ongoing professional learning is another key strategy, and for Greg Casey there are professional development days to look forward to.

“It’s a time to gather ourselves together and track how we are contributing to the move forward for Catholic education.”

Casey also explains the importance of creating awareness among parents about the pressures of the job of a school leader. He sees great value in taking time for a sabbatical or pilgrimage, having time to reflect and recharge. Reviewing work practices in light of job demands calls for principals to take responsibility for their personal work-life balance, something the report warns is too important to be left in other’s control.

Importantly, the study recognises the need for an independent authority to investigate offensive behaviour, in order to seriously address bullying and violence. It’s a strategy that will address one of the most challenging findings which is the need to maintain dignity at work.

“The results suggest that the need to look for the causes, and reduce the levels, of adult-to-adult bullying, threats of, and actual physical violence in schools is urgently required.” – The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness Survey 2017

Overseeing and directing a group of teachers in ways that support them in their role is hard work. It’s a job frequently taken for granted because most people are oblivious to the enormity of those responsibilities. Yet if teachers are our nation builders, then surely principals are the vanguard.

“They need to be well resourced, not just logistically, but also symbolically, emotionally, and intellectually.” – The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness Survey 2017

“The best part of my job is seeing our kids thrive. It’s rewarding to see primary school children develop, to see and hear about the great things they’re doing. Working with a great team of staff is a privilege, and I personally love seeing something work really well,” says Casey.

It’s time to urgently revise our duty of care to principals because society generally is failing them. Individuals should consider it a civic duty to support school leaders in fulfilling the myriad parts of their job. Not all of it is tough, but the latest report reveals that for most in the profession it is very difficult when it’s not rewarding.

Associate Professor Dr. Riley is the chief investigator and leader for the annual Education Insights Catholic Principal Health and Wellness Reports. He works as a CCI research partner and for the Australian Catholic University researching the overlap of psychology, education and leadership, with special focus on school leaders. He has collaborated on more than 150 publications and peer reviewed conference presentations and been awarded over $3 million in research funding. In 2010, he won an inaugural Monash Researcher Accelerator award which funded the first two Principal Health and Wellbeing Surveys, and continues to lead the project as Chief Investigator. He won both Dean’s academic awards in 2011: Excellence by an Early Career Researcher; Excellence in Innovation and External Collaboration.

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