Principals Health Safety and Wellbeing Study

It is now well understood that sustained high levels of stress can have serious physical and mental health consequences including starkly shortened life expectancy.

In 2011 British research into the prevalence of work related metal illness reported that “work related stress was higher in education than across all other industries… with work-related mental ill-health almost double the rate for all industry”.

The recently reported findings from the longitudinal study on the Health Safety and Wellbeing of Principals and Deputy Principals working in Australian schools,  in which one third of all Australian school principals and deputies are participating, reports significant and growing stressful working conditions in Australian schools.

Amongst the top ten stressors impacting on Principals and their deputies that all identified were:

  • the sheer quantity of work
  • lack of time for teaching and learning
  • dealing with the mental health of students
  • dealing with the mental health of staff

Of particular concern is the reported increasing frequency of bullying, threatened violence and actual violence against school principals and their deputies with incidence rates of 4 – 7 times those the rate occurring in the general community.

The report’s authors recognise that this type of violence is increasingly impacting on public sector workers and reflects problems in the larger Australian society but that its impact on schools is particularly damaging. “The consequences of offensive behaviour in schools are likely to become costly for employers, through time lost to ill health, OH&S claims against employers’ responsibility for not providing a safe working environment and reduced functioning while at work as a result of the high levels of offensive behaviour in the workplace”.

Looking back at the number of accepted stress claims for which compensation was paid in the Department of Education between 2003 and 2007 the cost was $32107307 almost half the total cost of all ill health and injury claim costs of $65173107. We cannot quantify the anguish of those who but we also know that the loss of productive time amounted to 197,718 paid incapacity days.

As Professor Philip Riley reports in his summary

“Principals, deputy/assistant principals and teachers deal daily with parents’ greatest hopes and deepest fears: the lives and potential futures of their children. While this is recognized in the law of loco parentis, the emotional consequences remain under-researched (Hargreaves, 2013; Woolfolk Hoy, 2013). This means high levels of emotion are attached to many aspects of school functioning, and principals and deputy/assistant principals have to learn how to deal with this on the job, rather than through systematic preparation. This can be particularly difficult for principals and deputy/assistant principals who must communicate the way education policy is both developed and practiced to teachers, parents and students, sometimes in emotionally charged situations. The difficulties between the adult stakeholders in schools that have been consistently reported in every year of the survey need to be acknowledged and dealt with on a more systematic basis. Systematic attention also needs to be paid to the professional learning of principals and deputy/assistant principals, and presumably teachers, in the emotional aspects of their roles and the emotional investment of parents in their children, which may underlie the high rate of violence and threats principals and deputy/assistant principals are experiencing. In-service provision of education on the emotional aspects of teaching, learning, organizational function, emotional labour, dealing with difficulties and conflicts in the workplace, employee assistance programs, debriefing self and others appears to be urgently needed.”