At breaking point? - Education Matters Magazine

At breaking point?

With one in three school leaders generating a red flag when it comes to their mental health, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Philip Riley, from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University, discusses how principals can identify if they fall into the high-risk category.

The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey has been running for eight years. From the outset, one aim of the survey was to produce an immediate alert to individuals reporting elevated risk. We call these alerts red flag emails.

The bad news is that following the publication of a recent study into occupational risks, we learned that we have been underestimating the risk of individuals.

Conducted in 2017, the study by Adrienne Stauder, Katalin Nistor, Tünde Zakor, Anita Szabó, Anikó Nistor, Szilvia Ádám and Barna Konkolÿ Thege – Quantifying Multiple Work-Related Psychosocial Risk Factors: Proposal for a Composite Indicator Based on the COPSOQ II – was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

So, in 2017 the trigger for a red flag became more sensitive. If you received the email this year or last year but not in previous years and feel your job hasn’t changed that much, the trigger sensitivity is probably the reason you have now received one. The new risk factor is a composite psychosocial risk score (CPRS).

Now for the really bad news. In 2018, the number of red flags generated by school leaders is currently running at 37%, slightly more than 1 in every 3 principals across the country.

Stauder and the team of researchers used the medium version of the COPSOQ-II questionnaire to develop the composite risk measure. As we had already obtained six waves of data from principals in Australia using the full length COPSOQ-II questionnaire, we were able to add four additional risk factors to the composite measure using their protocols. In constructing the CPRS, variables are categorised as either: strain, resource or outcome. Psychosocial risk at work increases with each strain threshold reached and each resource deficit threshold identified. The risks are the increasing odds of suffering from one or more negative health outcomes (poor sleep, burnout, depression, cognitive and somatic stress, poor general health).

The CPRS is essentially a trigger threshold mechanism that reduces scores for each strain and resource variable to ‘High Risk’ versus ‘Not High Risk’. For variables where lower scores indicate better working conditions (generally, but not always strain variables), a score of 75/100 is the threshold for concern and coded high risk. On the other hand, where lower scores indicate worse working conditions, a score of ≤25/100 is the threshold for concern, and also coded high risk. The CPRS is a simple summing of the high risk codes for each individual school leader, with higher scores representing increasing risk.

Trends show the low risk group has been steadily falling while the moderate, high and very high groups have been increasing. Many of the principals who are not receiving a red flag email are nonetheless suffering from significant sleeping problems and poor general health.

The cumulative risk from work stressors increases the chances of experiencing psychological and/or physical symptoms of poor health (high stress, high burnout, sleeping troubles and poor health).

This year, red flag emails were automatically generated for individuals whose CPRS fell into the High or Very High category, along with those who reported low quality of life or thoughts of self harm, which had been the two triggers used in previous years. So if you received a red flag in 2017 or this year, it would be wise to discuss your survey results with your GP. While a red flag is only an indicator, it is better to be safe than sorry.