One in five school principals is overwhelmed by workplace stress, a survey has found, with an expert saying the results point to a “looming crisis”.
Results from the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey 2017 revealed almost half of respondents had faced threats of violence at work, and one in three had experienced actual violence.
The figures were the highest since the national study began seven years ago.
Just under 2,800 principals, deputies and assistant principals from across the country took part in the latest survey, which was conducted by academics from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and supported by school associations and teachers’ health unions.
School heads from all sectors were represented.
The survey found more than half of all principals worked more than 56 hours a week, and 27 per cent worked up to 65 hours every week.
Principals reported higher levels of burnout than the general population, twice as much difficulty sleeping as a result of stress and were at higher risk of depression.
While job satisfaction was generally high, teachers across all sectors said they did not feel supported by their employers.
The sheer quantity of work and a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning were the two biggest causes of stress.
Principals said red tape and the increasing accountability requirements demanded by governments was hindering teaching and learning in the classroom.
ACU Associate Professor of educational leadership Philip Riley, the chief investigator on the survey, said the results indicated the employment demands on principals were unsustainable.
“When you have one in five principals showing serious signs of distress then we have a systemic problem, not an individual problem,” Dr Riley said.
“They’re paying a very heavy toll in terms of their general health and certainly on their mental health.”
Dr Riley said the most worrying finding was that school principals rated the level of support they derived from their employer at less than one, on a scale of one to 10.
They also expressed frustration with political and bureaucratic interference in the job of educators.
“Politicians love to be able to say they’re going to radically change education for the better,” Dr Riley said.
“What that usually means is a hell of a lot of extra work for principals without actually very much real change.
“Rather than trusting principals to do their work with honesty and integrity, it’s been replaced with massive checklists that they spend a lot of time filling out.
“We’re really at a point where we have a looming crisis, I think, in terms of school leadership.
“And we have to address that. The very first thing is to say we have a serious issue and we need to change the way we’ve designed this job.
“It’s virtually become impossible to be a school principal and survive for a long career.”
In 2014, parents and students were shocked by the suicide of popular Melbourne school principal, Dr Mark Thompson.
An 18-month WorkCover investigation found that work related stress contributed to the death.
Free health checks for Victorian principals
Today the Victorian Government will announce it will roll out a program of free health checks for school principals.
The check-ups are voluntary and confidential.
Glenn Butler, the principal of Mount View Primary School at Glen Waverley in Melbourne’s east, took part in one of the first health checks yesterday.
They involve pathology tests that measure cholesterol, liver function and kidney function, mental health screening questionnaires and risk factor identification.
Principals are then linked back for further follow-up with their regular GP if required.
After taking an initial questionnaire, Mr Butler said he was given a wake-up call.
“It was clear to me that there are times when I suffer very high degrees of stress,” Mr Butler said.
Often when it’s smooth sailing and everything is working in a harmonious fashion it’s a very pleasurable job, but there are critical times when the stresses and anxieties really mount up on each other.”Mr Butler said he wanted to set an example to all teachers at his school.
“I really encourage all my teachers and middle school leaders to develop a healthy diet, take time during the week to have regular exercise and breaks, but also do basic things like come to the staff room and have a laugh with each other at recess break and lunchtime,” he said.
“In the end everyone in the community will benefit because you’ll have much more effective and highly energised teachers who enjoy the job and principals who are passionate but are capable and continuously energised about the job.”
This piece was originally published on ‘ABC News’ 21 February 2018.