2017 Australian Principals' Health Survey

Not enough being done to assist stressed and overworked school principals

  • Job demands of principals have increased
  • Mental health issues associated with staff and students are increasing causing additional stress
  • Unacceptable levels of offensive behaviour, bullying and violence are being inflicted on principals by parents and students

Not enough is being done to help stressed and overworked school principals cope with the ever-increasing demands of the job. The 2017 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey is the sixth annual survey showing steadily increasing pressures on school principals and deputies.

The report reveals little is being done by private school employers, Catholic Education Offices or State and Territory Governments to ease the burden school principals are carrying.

Report author Associate Professor Philip Riley from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, said school leaders from private independent schools, Catholic schools and government schools needed more support because in many cases their health was suffering because of the pressure of work.

“As principals are retiring, other senior teachers at the top of their game are saying they are not prepared to take on the role of school leader because of the punishing workload,” Assoc Prof Philip Riley said. “What every school system in Australia needs to urgently address are the levels of burnout, stress and additional responsibility being loaded onto principals.”

Prof Riley said the survey had revealed:

  • Job demands of principals had increased.
  • Mental health issues associated with staff and students were increasing causing additional stress.
  • Unacceptable levels of offensive behaviour, bullying and violence are being inflicted on principals by parents and students.

“There is a decreasing level of personal support for principals from within the schools they lead and from their employers. That is a major concern,” Prof Riley said. “Educational employers can help by reducing job demands, or increase resources to cope with increasing demand.”

“What also worries me is the pressure of work has become such a burden that many principals are suffering a decline in their health that will get worse unless they can find ways to reduce the pressure they are working under.”

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.

Most principals reported their main source of support were their partners (80%), work colleagues (67%) and friends (67%).

Only 26% said their main source of support was a supervisor or manager and even fewer, 6% said they were supported mainly by the Department of Education or their employer.

Principals are experiencing workplace demands that are 1.5 times higher than the general population. That makes them subject to higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), and depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).

A small proportion of principals (9-10%) reported that workplace stress had caused them to generate “red flag” responses, suggesting they were at increased risk of mental and physical health issues.

Principals reported stress was mainly caused by the “sheer quantity of administrative work” they were required to perform. They complain about suffering additional stress due to the lack of time available to focus on teaching and learning.

Principals and deputy principals experience a far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population.

The prevalence rate for “threats of violence,” is extremely high (in 2011, 38% of participants had been threatened). This rose to 44% by 2016.

“Close to 50% of principals have received threats in their workplaces. This is unacceptable and parents and students must show more restraint when dealing with school principals than resorting to violence, threats or intimidation to solve problems or help them manage their anger,” Prof Riley said.

“Those resorting to violence or intimidation when dealing with school leaders need to understand that such behaviour won’t solve problems and there are serious consequences from assaulting or intimidating school principals.”

Actual physical violence has risen from 27% in 2011 to 34% in 2016. In primary schools the perpetrator of violence is more likely to be a parent. In high schools it is more likely to be a student.

“This is happening across the board, in elite private schools, Catholic schools and public schools. I know of a case in which a private school principal was pinned up against a brick wall by a barrister holding his elbow across his throat because of a dispute about fees.”

Prof Riley said threats and violence against principals and deputies was increasing in NSW, NT, Tasmania and ACT and the upward trend in other states was less severe.

“Offensive behaviour simply must stop. We are concerned about the steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types.”

“This is not just happening in schools. There is a similar trend being experienced in all frontline professions.”

“Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root cause of this and set about addressing them at every level of society.”

“If we improve the working conditions for principals and teachers we also improve the learning conditions for students, as the two are inseparable.”

Assoc Prof Philip Riley and representatives of principals’ organisations in each state are available for interview.

Media contact John Hill 0412197079; john@mountainmedia.com.au

The full report can be found at principalhealth.org/au/reports

If you or someone you know is suffering for workplace stress, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp