Long days, emotional toll alert for principals: report

Mary Fogarty
Research Officer

A significant stressor has been the increased emphasis by governments on accountability for uniform curriculum delivery

One in four principals work more than 60 hours a week, on salaries that start at just $50,000 a year, and more than half put in at least 25 hours a week even during the holidays, a comprehensive report shows.

Principals experience nearly five times the incidence of actual or threatened violence than other population groups with public school principals in large towns and rural areas face the highest levels of violence.

The final report of the Australian Principals Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey strongly recommends that principals be trained in handling the emotional aspects of leadership rather than having to learn through experience.

The survey, carried out by a team from Monash University funded in 2014 by Teachers Health Fund, is aimed at developing evidence-informed changes to work practices that would minimise adverse health impacts on principals. The final report from the survey, obtained from government, private, Catholic and independent schools in every state and region across the country, came out in December 2014.

The role of school principal is rapidly changing, the report notes. A significant stressor has been the increased emphasis by governments on accountability for uniform curriculum delivery along with the devolution of administrative tasks from central to local control. Many non-educational administrative tasks such as payroll, budgeting and teacher employment have been devolved to school leaders.

As many as 70 per cent of the country’s 10,000 school principals will reach retirement age within the next five years and, says the report, will be replaced with much younger, less experienced individuals, potentially more at risk of adverse health outcomes from taking the role. Changes need to be made to principals’ work practices that reduce the negative impact of the job.

Responses to the survey came from 2621 principals and 1024 deputy principals (56 per cent female and 44 per cent male) aged 51.3 years on average.

Many work at least 46 hours a week during term with more than a quarter working more than 61 hours per week. During school holidays, more than half work 25 hours or more a week.

Annual salaries range from $50,000–$160,000.

Leaders upbeat despite stress

Despite the stress and long hours respondents were generally positive about their job, with only 2.6 per cent becoming frequently depressed about it.

A stable family background and strong relationships are intrinsic features of principals’ lives. Almost all (97.3 per cent) rate personal relationships with family and friends as very important or higher; 83.2 per cent are in a partner relationships and 82 per cent report that their greatest source of support comes from their partner. Almost half of their partners also work in the education sector.

Most respondents came from a background of close family life, with 87.9 per cent saying they lived with a mother and father at the age of 14. Half have children living at home.

One-third engages in regular spiritual practice.

Almost half (46 per cent) volunteer their time for community support outside their role and the same number are active members of a formal community or sporting association.

Approximately one-quarter of the principals have a family member with a long-term health condition, with serious impact on the family in 28 per cent of the sample.

In relation to their own health concerns, 49 per cent take prescription medication for a diagnosed condition and 43.4 per cent reported a diagnosed medical condition. Most drink alcohol but do not use it to manage stress.

A third of the principals have a Masters degree, and a quarter of their parents had university degrees.

The report underlines the importance of systematic preparation and professional support for principals in dealing with the demanding emotional aspects of the role. At present, they suffer from having to pick up that knowledge on the job.

The report recommends that opportunities be provided for principals to engage in professional support networks on a regular basis.

Finally, the report recommends the establishment of an independent authority to investigate the three types of violence identified in schools, that is adult/adult bullying: threats of violence; and actual violence. The report recommends that this authority be independent from all stakeholder groups in schools and government.

The research project provided automatic feedback of the results to each individual who completed the survey, increasing the benefit to each participant.