Principals stressed out long before pandemic: study

Thursday, 04 June, 2020

Principals stressed out long before pandemic: study

A survey that was completed prior to the 2020 bushfires, floods and pandemic has revealed key information about the mental health of Australia’s principals.

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2019 revealed that nearly one in three school principals faced stress and burnout from their jobs, including high levels of threats and physical violence by parents and students.

It also showed that today's school leaders are more concerned for the mental health of students and staff than in any previous year.

The authors of the Australia-wide survey believe the COVID-19 pandemic could herald a positive shift in community attitudes toward school leaders.

The Australian Research Council-funded project was awarded to the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and led by Professor Herb Marsh and his colleagues from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at ACU, and Professor Philip Riley from Deakin University's School of Education.

The researchers believe mass disruptions to school and home life during COVID-19 could trigger a welcome uplift in community appreciation for the ongoing and unforeseen challenges faced by school principals.

 Professor Riley said the national school shutdown from COVID-19 restrictions had reminded communities of the vital role that school leaders play.

"The sudden changes to education delivery prompted by COVID-19 restrictions required an unprecedented response by school leaders to roll out remote learning opportunities for their students," Professor Riley said.

"We know from anecdotal evidence that many parents, although impacted themselves, are deeply appreciative of this work by principals and educators. We hope this points to a future in which there is greater awareness and acknowledgement of the many stresses and challenges that principals face on a regular basis as they lead their students and staff."

Since it commenced in 2011, the annual survey has heard from more than 50% of Australia's school principals.

The 2019 survey found that, compared to the general population, a far higher percentage of school leaders reported being subjected to threats of violence (51% versus 7.8%), physical violence (42.2% versus 3.9%), bullying (37.6% versus 8.3%), conflicts and quarrels (57.5% versus 51.2%), and gossip and slander (50.9% versus 38.9%).

"Last year school leaders told us they were struggling from many serious work-related issues, including stress caused by parents, burnout from the sheer quantity of work, employer demands, and student and staff mental health issues," Professor Marsh said.

"The combined impact of record levels of heavy workloads and offensive behaviour by parents and students is a risk to school leaders' long-term health and even their life expectancy."

Professor Riley said that while violence was a problem anywhere where strong emotions were involved, education leaders were drawing a line in the sand to say this appalling behaviour must end in schools.

Almost three-quarters (70.3%) of school leaders are aged over 50 years and more than 25% of Australia's school principals are aged over 60 years and nearing retirement.

"It should be no surprise that fewer educators are willing to step up and take on the increasingly complex role of school principal," Professor Riley said.

"The low replacement rate for retiring school principals tells a truly dire story about our education system which should concern us all and needs further investigation.

"Countless studies show the transformative nature of education and school leadership. If we, as a nation, are serious about the key role of education in the growth and development of Australia, we simply cannot ignore school leaders' cries for help."

Image credit: © Popov

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