Fires, floods, and a global pandemic: Principals talk about alarming stress and workloads during 'year like no other'

Media release
15 March 2021

A survey of Australia's principals has found last year's ravaging bushfires, followed by shock floods, and the COVID-19 global pandemic had an immense impact on the stress and workload of school leaders.

"The Australian Principal Occupational, Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2020, jointly conducted by researchers at Deakin University and Australian Catholic University (ACU) surveyed 2,248 school principals across all states and the territories.

Now in its 10th year, the longitudinal study has tracked trends in the health, wellbeing, and safety of school leaders and made policy recommendations to both government and key stakeholders.

Co-chief investigator for the survey and ACU Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE) Professor Herb Marsh said, "The extremely long work hours and constant exposure to stress during 2020 left school principals exhausted."

"During 2020, almost all principals (97 per cent) worked overtime and close to 70 per cent worked more than 56 hours a week during school term, and 25 hours a week during the holidays. The main sources of stress were the sheer quantity of work, the lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, the mental health issues of students and the expectations of the employer," Professor Marsh said.

"During the survey period, three of out 10 school leaders (almost 30 per cent) received a red flag email alerting them to contact employee support services. These alert emails are triggered when school leaders are at risk of self-harm, occupational health problems or serious impacts to their quality of life."

ACU investigator and IPPE Professor Phil Parker added, "Over the past decade, principals report a steady increase in job demands with no real increase in support services. The surveys have shown us that school leaders need support to maintain a healthy work-life balance."

Deakin University's Professor Phil Riley and co-chief investigator said the survey shone a light on "a year like no other" for school leaders.

"Last year was one of unimaginable horrors for Australians and the global pandemic had a life-altering effect on us all," Professor Riley said.

"But 2020 showed us that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

"As well as needing to quickly develop on-line learning practices, school principals were faced with managing COVID-safe processes to protect their employees, students, and parents from a global pandemic.

"Although schools were classed as essential services, and told to stay open to protect the economy, they were not privy to vital information. Particularly at the start of COVID-19, school leaders had to listen to the news to find out what to do with their schools' operations."

However, Professor Riley said there was a bright spot, "The survey has shown us the pandemic's lockdowns and restrictions reminded communities about the vital role school leaders play. Ironically, COVID-19 could herald a positive shift in community attitudes towards school principals."

KEY FINDINGS

Offensive behaviours

  • More than 40 per cent of principals reported being exposed to threats of violence or being a victim of physical violence in 2020. This is up to nine times greater than the general population. However, several categories of offensive behaviours decreased in 2020 which is attributed to the reduced face-to-face contact with parents.
  • Over the 10-year lifespan of the survey, there was a steady increase in bullying, physical violence, slander, sexual harassment, threats of violence and verbal harassment towards principals.

Table: 2020 Offensive Behaviour by parents and students towards school leaders by state and territory, compared against the general population.

 

NSW

VIC

QLD

SA

WA

TAS

ACT

NT

General population

Sexual Harassment

2%

2%

1%

1%

1%

5%

2%

3%

3%

Threats of Violence

43 %

30%

44%

45%

46%

57%

55%

47%

8%

Physical Violence

38%

21%

38%

42%

43%

38%

57%

55%

4%

Bullying

25%

14%

19%

20%

15%

24%

21%

26%

8%

Unpleasant Teasing

6%

2%

4%

2%

4%

0%

5%

8%

8%

Conflicts and Quarrels

36%

31%

41%

43%

32%

43%

36%

42%

51%

Gossip and Slander

31%

19%

33%

31%

28%

41%

19%

21%

39%

Cyber Bullying

28%

20%

34%

25%

27%

36%

24%

16%

 

Ageing workforce

  • School leaders have on average 27 years' experience in the school environment.
  • A staggering 47.5 per cent of school leaders are over 56 years of age.
  • 5.5 per cent of school leaders are over 66 years of age.
  • Almost 7 per cent (6.8 per cent) of school leaders plan to retire this year in 2021.

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

There are 16 key recommendations in the report including the following:

  • There is an urgent need to establish an independent taskforce to fully investigate the offensive behaviours occurring in schools.
  • Standardisation and risk management of online meetings with parents may be required to ensure quality control and reduce offensive behaviours and are likely to be more convenient for parents and principals.
  • Employers need to take the moral choice of reducing job demands or increase job resources to allow school leaders to cope with the increased workload.
  • Professional associations and unions should collaborate and speak with one voice. A united voice would be stronger for achieving change. In Finland, for example, there is one union which advocates for all educators.
  • Federal, state and territory governments should come together to maintain a single education budget in a managerial way. All school funding should be transparent so that anyone, at any level of the system, can confidently know how much money schools have.
  • In education, there is a need to systematically research potential strategies and new policies before they are rolled out on a large scale. In medicine, for example, it would be unheard of to put in place large new programs without adequate efficacy and safety tests. The same should be true in education.

PROGRESS

Over the ten years of this report, important progress has been made in key areas:

  • Increased government recognition of the issue of violence in schools with several inquiries underway at the state, territory, and federal level.
  • The report has shone a light on the burden of stress and overwork among principals and significant policy changes have been made to benefit principals, particularly in Victoria, Queensland and Northern Territory. For example, the establishment of the Victorian Policy Bank has helped ease the workload of principals in that state.
  • Substantially reduced waiting times for mental health consultations with the Teachers Health Fund and other providers.
  • The survey report is available here: https://www.healthandwellbeing.org/principal-reports#

    A video news release including interviews with the lead researchers is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_par4e9gqg

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