Poor mental health among principals is a growing concern, with issues related to stress, anxiety and depression becoming all too commonplace. This has sparked the creation of a range of resources that aim to support school leaders into a brighter, healthier future.
The role of a school principal is dynamic, fluid and always under pressure. Having to oversee all that goes on in a school – from the wellbeing of young people and the day-to-day issues of teachers, to the way in which the curriculum is delivered, school programs, class schedules, policies and procedures, budgets, school facilities and maintenance, the list goes on. Add to this the increasingly complex issues coming from parents and families – and it’s not hard to see why the number of school principals who feel stressed and overworked is on the rise.
While most principals are handling the realities well, increasingly mental health has become a serious issue that is having a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of many of our school leaders. The results of the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, which were released at the end of February 2019, showed alarming figures, with almost one in three principals experiencing dangerously high levels of stress.
This annual survey is led by Associate Professor Philip Riley of Australian Catholic University, who is also a registered psychologist. Results involved the responses of 2365 participants. Since starting in 2011, around 50 per cent of Australia’s 10,000 principals have taken part in the survey.
According to Nadine Bartholomeusz-Raymond, General Manager Education and Families at Beyond Blue, there are common factors that contribute to high stress levels for those in leadership roles.
“It is estimated that 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. These conditions tend to affect individuals during their working years, with one in five workers currently experiencing a mental health condition in Australia,” explains Ms Bartholomeusz-Raymond.
“Work and the work environment can promote or negatively impact mental health. Being in a meaningful job you enjoy is good for mental health and wellbeing. However, workplaces with persistent high stress which is not well managed can increase the risk of mental health issues including anxiety and depression.”
Beyond Blue provides information and support around mental health, addressing issues associated with depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental disorders.
It lists the following factors that can lead to workplace stress for educators:
• Time pressures and workload.
• Student behaviour including lack of motivation and effort, disrespect, challenging authority and violence.
• Managing instances of bullying and other behavioural issues.
• Conflict with managers and colleagues.
• Adapting and implementing change.
• Being evaluated by others.
• Poor working conditions.
• Self-esteem and status.
Though Ms Bartholomeusz-Raymond acknowledges that most jobs involve some amount of stress, which can affect staff at all levels, she adds, “While some stress can be managed well, it can become an issue when it is excessive and ongoing. Principals face the specific challenges of leading improvement, being accountable for their staff and students, and meeting the expectations of parents. Being responsible and accountable for educators and support staff whose sole purpose is to nurture, grow and enrich the learning environment of students and create a physical and mentally healthy environment is also a significant responsibility. The level of accountability and responsibility on principals’ shoulders is considerable when you recognise the expectations of their staff, parents, families and local communities. Stress is unavoidable.”
And this view is echoed by the National Excellence in School Leadership Institute (NESLI). When asked about the biggest drivers of poor mental health among school principals and school leaders, NESLI General Manager Paul Mears explains, “It’s around workload, around pressure to innovate and change, but not really having the capacity to do that because the role of a principal needs to be redesigned into one that focuses on innovation and change.”
Mr Mears believes that in the same vein, there is a reactive rather than a proactive approach, so the pressures on principals are really intense.
“There is not enough scope to apply and achieve the things principals want to achieve due to constraints of dealing with mental health issues of students, pressure from parents, and all of the social dynamics that impact the role of a school leader.
“They are susceptible and immediately impacted by changes in society. We can see from the results of Professor Riley’s research that the increased levels of violence in schools are alarming.”
Formed in 2015, NESLI focuses on developing, addressing and coming up with solutions for some of the emerging issues in schools in the K-12 sector – including principal wellbeing.
“As schools become more complex, leadership skills become more paramount. At NESLI, we are firm believers that quality leadership results in quality student outcomes,” says Mr Mears.
“We want to address the challenges and provide support in complex school environments, and wellbeing is at the forefront of that. The link between wellbeing and quality school leadership are integral. This has a profound influence on the academic wellbeing of students.”
The latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey results, which are based on 2018 data, shows stress caused by heavy workloads and not enough time to focus on teaching and learning has remained high among principals in recent years, but there has been an upward trend in both since 2015. Dealing with student and staff mental health issues, teacher shortages, high average working hours, offensive behaviour and increased threats of violence are also contributing to high levels of stress and poor mental health for our principals – both at the primary and secondary level.
Professor John Fischetti, an expert in educational leadership and Interim Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Newcastle, says that the latest results are, unfortunately, unsurprising.
“The fabric of Australian society is tearing a bit, with social upheaval similar to the US and UK being brought to the school’s doorstep every day. Principals are the face of schools and as such are always dealing with whatever the ‘crisis du jour’ is. They are wearing the parent and student issues that come from a society that does not value educators and education as much as we should, and ironically, this comes at a time when we need great educators and education the most,” he says.
Professor Fischetti believes that when it comes to poor principal mental health, hard work, long hours and people skills aren’t the root of the problem.
“We have great people on the job who are excellent at the work needed. The issues young people are bringing to school, and that their parents and carers are taking out on school leaders are enormously challenging. Staff mental health issues are profound as well,” Professor Fischetti says.
“This sort of social upheaval has so many families on the edge of losing their homes, working extra jobs, stressed about their future economic vitality and it shows in their children. In addition, the pedagogies used in most places lead to disengagement of young people and this exaggerates the problems. This is across socio-economic lines.”
Fear of change or a reluctance to readily embrace the changing dynamic of schools can pose another reason for concern, according to Professor Fischetti. “We are still mostly running schools as places young people go to watch their teachers work. The passive nature of most pedagogies, assessments that are not authentic, the slow pace of change in many sectors of education from the top down is causing leaders to still hold on to the schools we know rather than invent the schools we need. The current designs put pressure on compliance, standardisation, passivity and rules rather than on creativity, personalisation and flexibility.”
The latest survey results also highlighted that principals and deputy/assistant principals experience higher levels of offensive behaviour in the workplace than the general population. Between the survey’s inaugural year in 2011 and 2018, there was an increase in the number of principals who experienced threats of violence, up from 28 per cent to 45 per cent. Those subjected to actual physical violence rose from 27 per cent to 37 per cent.
For anyone experiencing poor mental health, being able to identify that there is an issue and understand the warning signs is the first step to overcoming the problem.
“It is helpful to understand the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety so individuals can spot them in others or themselves and seek support,” says Ms Bartholomeusz-Raymond.
“If you notice any persistent changes in your thoughts, feelings or behaviour that are starting to interfere with your work performance or quality of life, see your GP or a health professional for assessment and advice. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you can recover.
“It is important for principals to remember to first put the oxygen mask on yourself, before you can expect to support your staff and students. Modelling good mental health is also important, so self-care is paramount, as well as acknowledging periods of personal challenge.”
Sometimes, signs that a person is suffering from a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression isn’t obvious. With anxiety conditions, for example, the issue can often develop over time. A normal level of anxiety generally lasts a short period and is connected to a particular stressful situation or event – for example, a job interview. This is very different to the type of anxiety experienced by people with an anxiety condition, where anxiety is more frequent or persistent, not always connected to an obvious challenge, and impacts on their quality of life and day-to-day functioning.
Different anxiety conditions have varying symptoms, but Beyond Blue says some of the most common symptoms include:
• Physical: panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy.
• Psychological: excessive fear, worry, catastrophising, or obsessive thinking.
• Behavioural: avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious which can impact on study, work or social life.
A person suffering from depression may be identified if they have felt sad, down or miserable most of the time, or have lost interest or pleasure in usual activities. Typically, this becomes an issue if these feelings last for more than two weeks. Signs a person is suffering from depression include:
• Behaviour changes including not going out anymore, not getting things done at work, withdrawing from friends/family, relying on alcohol and sedatives.
• Feeling overwhelmed, guilty, irritable, frustrated, lacking confidence, indecisive and miserable.
• Thoughts such as ‘I’m a failure’, ‘it’s my fault’, ‘nothing good ever happens to me’, ‘people would be better off without me’.
• Physically tired all the time, sick and run down, headaches and muscle pains, sleep problems and loss of appetite.
According to Beyond Blue, it’s important to remember that we all experience some of these symptoms from time to time and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed. Also, not everyone who is experiencing depression will have all of these symptoms.
“While we know the expectations placed on leaders can lead to mental health issues, with the right support and treatment most people affected by a mental health condition recover and lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Recovery is different for everyone. For some people, recovery means no longer having symptoms, while for others it means learning to manage their symptoms,” says Ms Bartholomeusz-Raymond.
“A supportive, mentally healthy work environment that promotes mental health protective factors can minimise the risk of the workplace having a negative impact on people’s mental health. At an organisational level, research supports the implementation of an integrated approach to workplace mental health. This is about looking at your workplace mental health and wellbeing strategy holistically, not by reactively addressing issues and risks in isolation.”
The Heads Up website, developed by Beyond Blue and supported by the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, calls on those in leadership roles to make a commitment and take action in creating a healthier workplace environment. Everyone within the workplace is encouraged to contribute to creating a healthier workplace, look after their own mental health, and look out for their colleagues. Key strategies include creating a positive workplace culture, managing risks to mental health, supporting people with mental health conditions, and adopting a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination.
In looking after their own mental health, Professor Fischetti adds that the key for any leader is to also manage their own work/life balance. “Physical and emotional health are both vital. Great diets, exercise and overall wellbeing are crucial; and a support system of colleagues who ‘get it’ to serve as mentors and confidants.”
As a community, Professor Fischetti lists several steps we can all take to help address the issue of principal mental health:
• Value school leaders and teachers far more than we do.
• Embrace changes they propose to school design so that some of the issues faced are not ones where we in the public continue wanting schools to look like they did for us, rather than taking them in a whole new direction.
• Support equity-based approaches to funding.
With growing concern around the topic of principal mental health, various programs and initiatives have been launched to help support the wellbeing of principals and school leaders.
After launching its Staff Wellbeing Toolkit in early 2017, NESLI recently followed this with the launch of the Principal Wellbeing Forum.
Mr Mears says the Principal Wellbeing Forum is about bringing principals together to build that social capability and be able to support each other at a network level.
“The principal’s role can be quite isolating so recognition of the importance of staff wellbeing, having that HR approach to manage teachers, and providing opportunities for staff to build their wellbeing and social capital, provides opportunities for principals to implement the things they’d like to into their schools. It’s very difficult to build morale in a school when staff wellbeing is at rock bottom,” Mr Mears explains.
“The forum was developed in recognition of Professor Riley’s research. NESLI felt that principals faced different challenges in being leaders of organisations, and needed a program that met those requirements. This resource is fully online, so it’s a different mode of delivery and is about bringing cohorts of principals together to share experiences and talk about those issues. The social aspect is where it has its highest impact.”
The issue of mental health and wellbeing in schools and workplaces is one that has been recognised by governments too.
As an example, the Australian Government appointed Beyond Blue in June 2017 to lead Be You (beyou.edu.au), a resource that provides useful strategies everyone can adopt in schools and early learning services to manage and reduce their own stress levels and maintain a positive work/life balance. Be You is led by Beyond Blue with delivery partners Early Childhood Australia and headspace. It is a free resource available to all 24,000 early learning services, primary and secondary schools and their respective families in Australia.
At a state level, initiatives such as the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy, and the Northern Territory Department of Education’s Principal Wellbeing Framework, have been created to specifically target the wellbeing of principals within their prospective states.
In the Northern Territory, the Principal Wellbeing Framework, developed in partnership with the Northern Territory Principals’ Association, identifies five dimensions of wellbeing: physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual. The framework aims to empower principals to engage in their wellbeing, be supported to grow strategies to enhance their wellbeing; and experience development in their wellbeing capability regardless of where they identify along the wellbeing continuum.
In Victoria, the Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy was launched in May 2018. It aims to protect and promote the mental and physical health and wellbeing of the state’s school principals. Its key objectives include addressing sources of stress such as workload and managing complex matters, offering specialist support and services, and equipping principals with the tools and confidence to be effective leaders. The strategy’s services, which include free and confidential health checks, early intervention services, mentoring and complex case support, were used over 1000 times by principals in 2018.
The strategy also includes the Proactive Wellbeing Supervision service, which provides all Victorian school principals and acting principals with access to up to four confidential sessions per year with a psychologist.
Complementing this strategy, WorkSafe Victoria has awarded $1.2 million in funding to not-for-profit mindfulness organisation, Smiling Mind, as part of the WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund to deliver a whole-school program designed to improve school culture, particularly focused on supporting principal mental health and wellbeing. It saw Smiling Mind collaborate with WorkWell from April 2019, with 80 primary school leaders across Victoria over a three-year period.
Smiling Mind will co-design a cultural and environmental change framework underpinned by mindfulness principles and practices. This will inform the direction for creating a tailored mindfulness program for each participating school.
“Primary school principals and teachers are responsible for our children during some of their most formative years,” says Smiling Mind CEO, Dr Addie Wootten. “This program will create positive change not just for the leaders but will also have a strong flow on effect to benefit the entire school community.”
The program will focus on four key areas: leadership training, school integration, communities of practice and coaching.
“We are in such a dynamic and exciting time,” adds Professor Fischetti. “This generation of young people finishing high school this year will be only the second group to have lived their whole lives in the 21st century. Facebook, YouTube and the Smartphone have all come a long since they were born. The issues we face – from climate change to refugee settlements, to the impact of these technologies – have to be reflected in the curriculum. We need a different kind of teacher for a different kind of school. And our leaders know that. The sooner we take hold of that, the easier that transition will be.”