Research from Deakin’s Educator Health and Wellbeing Team has uncovered that while the COVID-19 pandemic has been a mixed bag for educators, our school leaders’ faith in their roles remains largely positive. Post-Doctoral Research Fellows Ben Arnold, Mark Rahimi and Marcus Horwood (of the Health and Wellbeing Team) recount.
Over the last year, concern has grown about the health and wellbeing of education professionals. Preventative measures aimed at addressing the coronavirus pandemic, such as the partial or complete closure of schools, colleges and universities, have had a significant impact on those working in the education sector.
In many contexts, educators have been required to adapt to a ‘new normal’ where they work on the frontline of the pandemic alternating between face-to-face and online teaching and caring for the health and wellbeing of their school community.
The question of how to promote the development of safe, healthy work environments for educators their communities is of particular interest for us in Deakin’s Educator Health and Wellbeing Team.
Formed by Professor Phil Riley in 2018, we track education professionals working environments and health and wellbeing over time.
We currently undertake research with educators at all levels of the education system, from early childhood through to tertiary education, to investigate how their workplace and work tasks impact on their mental and physical health.
Our aim is to provide researchers, policymakers and educational leaders with evidence that can be used to establish healthy, safe working environments.
We also embed our discoveries and knowledge into Deakin’s postgraduate education courses, to better prepare the leaders of the future, and into educational policy and practice.
This year, we drew on Professor Phil Riley’s research into school leaders to map school leaders’ experiences of work during 2020 – the first year of the pandemic – and identify the issues and opportunities facing this group of educators in this current context.
While working conditions have been unfavourable, we were pleased to discover that school leaders reported some positive changes to their work environment.
Several disruptions and declining fairness at work
School leaders reported that while their workloads declined slightly, they continued to be a major burden and source of stress.
Our analysis also found that school leaders’ work environments changed during the 2020 and became more fluid and unstable.
School leaders reported that their work was less predictable in 2020 and they were less clear about the exact nature of their job role, expressing more doubt about their workplace tasks, duties and responsibilities.
School leaders also reported considerably lower levels of justice at their place of work in 2020, meaning that workplace procedures, interactions and the distribution of work were perceived to be less fair than in previous years.
Figure 1: Australian School Leaders’ interpersonal relations at workplace in 2019 and 2020 (%)
Stronger relationships and better work-life balance
But despite these challenges, school leaders also appeared to experience a number of positive changes at work during 2020.
School leaders reported receiving greater levels of support from their supervisors and colleagues, and reported a stronger sense of commitment to work during the first year of the pandemic.
Contradictory to some reports, school leaders also reported having a significantly better balance between work and their home lives, with work less frequently affecting the time they spent with family members and the energy they had available at home in 2020.
Australian School Leaders Social Support and Work Life Balance in 2019 and 2020 (%)
Overall, the changes forced by the pandemic to the work environment appear to have affected school leaders’ mental health and wellbeing. Compared to 2019, school leaders reported an increase in levels of stress and burnout in 2020.
Although less is known about the impact of the pandemic on the work and wellbeing of school teachers and early childhood educators, anecdotal evidence suggests that these education professionals have been significantly impacted.
At Deakin, we’re committed to undertaking robust research involving these groups of educators to better investigate their current working conditions and the status of their mental and physical health and wellbeing.
To learn more about Deakin’s School of Education and research priorities in education and teaching, visit deakin.edu.au/education.