Invisible challenges: a study of school principals

Tuesday, 22 August, 2023

Invisible challenges: a study of school principals

The emotional demands experienced by Australian principals are the subject of a new study by Monash University.

Australian schools are experiencing a major crisis in principal recruitment and retention, driven largely by stress, burnout and intensified workloads.

This study, led by the Monash Faculty of Education, will provide a chance for principals in public schools to tell their stories about how these demands are impacting the nature of their work.

The survey will provide the public with a glimpse into the nature and complexity of this work through a publicly available website that will curate and anonymously showcase some of the principals’ stories. The findings will also identify new understandings of the changing nature of a principal’s role when it comes to meeting emotional demands.

The three-year project, which is funded by the Australian Research Council, will aim to improve leadership preparation and development for school principals to help them manage complex emotional workload demands.

Lead researcher, Professor Jane Wilkinson from the Faculty of Education, said the emotional intensity of principals’ work has often been an “invisible” element of their work and not easily quantified or measured.

“Research needs to address not only the impact of excessive workload in terms of long hours (crucial though that is), but also the increased emotional intensity of this work. It’s the emotionally draining nature of the work, the ‘hard’ hours where principals are dealing with more and more demanding, emotionally intense situations as they support troubled staff, students and parents. This ‘invisible’ element of a principal’s work plays a significant role in increasing the stressors that impact their health and wellbeing,” Wilkinson said.

Managing one’s emotions and navigating those of others — ‘emotional labour’ — is a crucial aspect of principals’ work, but not a lot is known about it.

Chief Investigator Professor Lucas Walsh said that principals’ work is a stressful negotiation of demands of students, staff, parents and carers, among other demands.

“Managing these competing demands, and the emotional capacity to switch seamlessly between interactions with diverse members of school communities, can affect health and wellbeing, including chronic stress, burnout and low job satisfaction,” he said.

The project expects to generate new knowledge about principal workforce development and to create a framework for policymakers that identifies the knowledge and practices required to develop leaders’ emotional skills and build bridges across diverse communities.

Researchers expect that further anticipated benefits of the survey will include reduced principal turnover, improved teacher retention, improved student outcomes and greater social cohesion.

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