Health and wellbeing – it’s time for action! - Education Matters Magazine
Australian Secondary Principals Association, Health and Wellness

Health and wellbeing – it’s time for action!

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Since 2011, issues of health and wellbeing have worsened among educators  – an immediate response is therefore needed to address the growing problem, argues Rob Nairn, Executive Director of the Australian Secondary Principals Association.

The 2016 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety & Wellbeing Survey Report has been released but what has really changed since the survey began in 2011? The 2016 Report confirms that since the survey was introduced, issues have worsened in many areas for school leaders and this cannot be ignored.

The Report clearly shows that issues facing school principals are taking their toll. Job demands on principals have increased, staff and student mental health issues are on the rise and unacceptable levels of offensive behaviour, bullying and violence are often part of the growing problem.

There is a decreasing level of personal support for principals from within the schools they lead and from their employers. Most principals reported their main source of support were their partners (80 per cent), work colleagues (67 per cent) and friends (67 per cent). Only 26 per cent said their main source of support was a supervisor or manager and even fewer, (6 per cent) said they were supported mainly by the Department of Education or their employer.

Workload and the pressure of work has become such a burden that many principals are suffering a decline in their health, and this will continue unless they can find ways to reduce work pressure. Principals still rate the biggest contributor to stress, as the sheer quantity of work and lack of time to focus on their core business of teaching and learning. These issues will be exacerbated as principal turnover increases and positions become harder to ll due to the perception of the challenging nature of the role. This must be addressed.

Studies undertaken in Australia and across the globe con rm that principals need to work longer hours in order to fulfil the requirements of the position. Other studies suggest working longer hours leads to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, relationship problems, increased alcohol consumption, weight gain in men and depression in women.

The report highlights that there is no single stakeholder group responsible for the state of education and no single group has the power to affect much change. The problems and the solutions are similar in all sectors. The variation in social capital inside schools demonstrates that simple resourcing, while important, is not going to fix intractable issues.

We welcome the positive news that more principals are taking control of their work-life balance and reducing their work hours during holiday periods. Unfortunately, this is overshadowed by the deteriorating overall health and wellbeing of school leaders.

The issue however goes much deeper than just school leaders. In his blog The Elephant In The (Staff) Room – Why We Need To Talk About Teacher Wellbeing (The Huffington Post, 14th March 2017), Nick Haisman-Smith, Chief Executive at Family Links and the Nurturing Schools Network, makes the point that “it is impossible to support the social and emotional health of young people,
if we as teachers do not attend to our own emotional health”. The same must be true for school leaders trying to support their teachers and students.

He goes on to say “it is increasingly pressing that teacher wellbeing should be viewed as a serious concern.” Worrying figures show teachers are reporting poor physical and mental health as a result of their work, and of course this all has an impact on absence rates, motivation, and staff retention, both for individual schools and for the whole profession. Teacher wellbeing is not only a profound issue for teachers – it also has a major impact on pupil outcomes. Research has shown that teacher wellbeing not only significantly impacts pupils’ SATS results, but also has an effect on pupils’ own social and emotional wellbeing, creating a negative learning environment and damaging the quality of relationships between teacher and pupil.

Whilst ASPA and other professional associations have been leveraging off the best practice of exemplary principals across the country and driving profession-led change, this is not enough. Schooling has changed and the way students learn has changed. Increased autonomy has seen greater work intensi cation and accountability for both school leaders and teachers. In a complex climate of challenging pupil behaviour, emotional difficulties and ongoing policy changes, the effect on health and wellbeing is significant.

The stated decline/plateauing of student achievement across Australia (as demonstrated on national and international tests) is well documented and reported in the media adding to increased stress in schools. The government has done much to address teacher quality with no real change in student achievement. Perhaps that is only part of the problem?

It is time to invest in research to see how the problem of declining/plateauing student achievement might be linked to the health and wellbeing of staff in our schools. If we improve the working conditions for principals and teachers, we also improve the learning conditions for students, as the two are inseparable.

The health and wellbeing of school leaders and teachers must be part of the same conversation; they are closely linked and employers must take some responsibility to address the issues. Many school leaders, due to their own health and wellbeing issues, are not in a position to address the issues faced by their staff.

Many of the issues faced by school leaders are entrenched in the wider Australian culture. This is not a problem to be solved by educators alone. It requires a long-term focus and a whole of community response for sustained improvement. This is not a time to look for quick fixes.

We need to talk about health and wellbeing and recognise that high stress and poor mental health are common in our schools. This requires a shared focus and dialogue between government, employers, peak bodies and school leaders. It is time to acknowledge that the problems exist and have a national conversation to address the issues highlighted in the 2016 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety & Wellbeing Survey Report and the research into teacher health and wellbeing.

It is time to invest in our workforce and ensure they are well prepared to handle the demands and stresses of their challenging role.


Rob Nairn is Executive Director of the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA Ltd) and Adjunct Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University. He has extensive experience in metropolitan and regional Senior High Schools in Western Australia, particularly in low socio economic areas. Rob is passionate about developing exemplary leadership to provide high quality secondary education to all young people, regardless of their geographic, social or personal circumstances.
Rob is a Director of Principals Australia Institute (PAI Ltd), Director of Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), Chair of Edith Cowan University Applied Health Research Centre Advisory Board, Director of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) Advisory Board, Executive member International Confederation of Principals (ICP) and member of The Smith Family Principal Advisory Board.

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