Almost one in three principals are experiencing dangerously high levels of stress, according to the results of the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey released on 27 February 2019.
Stress caused by heavy workloads and not enough time to focus on teaching and learning have remained high in recent years, though there has been an upward trend in both since 2015. Student and staff mental health issues, combined with teacher shortages have further added to increasing stress levels among principals.
Average working hours have remained stable over the past eight years, though the survey reports that this remains too high for a healthy lifestyle to be maintained. On average, it was found that 53% of principals worked upwards of 56 hours per week during term, with around 24% working upwards of 61-65 hours per week.
The report also highlighted that principals and deputy/assistant principals experience far higher levels of offensive behaviour in the workplace than the general population.
The number of principals who had experienced threats of violence rose between 2011 and 2018 from 28% to 45%; and those who had been subjected to actual physical violence rose from 27% to 37%.
“The results from the 2018 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey should shock us into action for two reasons,” said Professor John Fischetti, an expert on education leadership and Interim Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle.
“First, the experiences of our fantastic school leaders are becoming more ‘United States-like’, where young people and their parents often take out their economic stresses and their sense of hopelessness for the role of education on those who are there to turn that around,” he said.
“And, second, the boredom and lack of engagement of so many young people are not-so-silent cries out for a new design of schools based on learner passion not teacher-dominant pedagogies, rules and obsolete assessments.”
Professor Jeffrey Brooks, who also researches school leadership, and is the Associate Dean of Research and Innovation and RMIT University agrees that the survey should act as a call for action.
“The Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing for 2018 data confirms what we already know, but it raises the stakes—the alarming rise in violence against principals demands an urgent response at local and national levels,” said Professor Brooks.
“Working conditions for principals are a problem for several reasons. First, people in the positions now need immediate help in terms of well-being and safety. Second, principals influence quality teaching and student learning. If they are not well or pushed too hard, it will surely have a negative effect on our schools. Third, Australia needs a steady pipeline of high-quality leaders. This is a priority for all states, and if we aim to attract high quality candidates, they must know they will be supported and cared for.”
The latest survey results are based on 2018 data, which involved the responses of 2365 participants. This research was led by Associate Professor Philip Riley of Australian Catholic University, who also a registered psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey has taken place annually since 2011 and since its inception around 50% of Australia’s 10,000 principals have taken part.
Survey data from the 2018 results consisted of responses from principals across various sectors: 58.5% Primary; 26.3% Secondary; 13.3% Kinder/Primary-Year 12; 1% Early Childhood; and 1% Special Schools. Of these principals, 74.7% are from government schools; 14.2% from Catholic schools; and 11.1% from independent schools.