Principal burnout and safety: Alarming stress and 'burnout' statistics concerning the people who care for our children (Part One)

23 February 2017

This is the first article in a two-part series on principal burnout and safety.  In this series, Craig D'Cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace, writes about the recent statistics and real life examples of principal occupational health and safety concerns.

There have been a number of ongoing articles in the press in recent times regarding the high levels of stress, anxiety and ‘burnout’ being experienced by principals in government and non-government schools right across the country.

However, it is the statistics that have been highlighted by the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (2016), which is now in its sixth year, and was completed by more than 3000 principals across the country that have raised this concern at a national level. It has been reported that approximately fifty per cent of all Australian principals have been involved with these surveys since 2011.

Some of the alarming statistics identified within this survey include that principals:

  • have stress symptoms that are 1.7 times higher than the general population;
  • have burnout rates that are 1.6 times above the norm;
  • experience workplace demands that are 1.5 times higher than the norm; and
  • that 10 per cent indicated very poor quality of life or had recent thoughts about self-harm

Many principals indicated that two of the main causes for the stress, burnout and poor life quality was the sheer quantity of administrative work and insufficient time to be able to focus on their true leadership role; teaching and learning. The table below is taken from the Wellbeing Survey, 10 out of the 19 listed criteria indicate the highest level of stress experienced since 2011. These two matters stand out clearly at the commencement of the graph.

Stats Principal article

This survey followed a nationwide study, by the Australian Catholic University, that found principals had high job satisfaction but were five times more likely than the wider population to face stress, depression, burnout and threats of violence.

In an interesting correlation from across the Tasman, in 2016 the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa reported that increased workload was putting Ministry of Education principals and school leaders under great stress and genuine risk of burnout. The key findings of their report included:

  1. Approximately 72% of school leaders work more than 51 hours per week during term, with 25% working more than 61 hours a week. Even during the term break, half worked more than 25 hours a week (similar figures are reflected in the Australian Wellbeing Survey results)
  2. The greatest reported cause of stress is the sheer quantity of work, closely followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning. Given the government’s stated focus on teaching and learning, the lack of resourcing and funding to allow principals to lead in this area is a major problem.
  3. The third-highest reported cause of stress was “government initiatives”.
  4. Work-family conflict is far too high, at 2.2 times the rate of the general population.
  5. Burnout of school leaders is 1.7 times the general population, but significantly higher in rural and isolated areas where there is less professional support.
  6. School leaders score less than the general population on all positive measures of health and wellbeing and higher on all negative measures.

Beth Blackwood, CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia and a member of the consultative committee for the Wellbeing Survey said: “The survey reveals that principals are working long hours during term time and during term breaks.” “There appears to have been some easing of hours worked during term break, which could be a welcome indicator that school leaders are acting on the evidence that managing their own health and wellbeing cannot be ignored.” “At the same time, there is evidence of further deterioration in health indicators such as stress, sleeping troubles and burnout. Working hours may not be increasing, but the intensity of the challenges that principals face certainly is – and is taking a toll on principals’ wellbeing.”

The survey raised 15 recommendations under six foundations and four strategies - professional support, professional learning, a review of current work practices and addressing bullying and violence. Recommendations 3, 4 and 8 should resonate with non-government school boards:

3. Take the moral choice of reducing job demands, or increase resources to cope with increased demands. Better still, do both. This will help to increase the level of social capital in schools.

4. Trust rather than rule educators. Leave the mechanisms for producing the best educators to the educators. This will also increase social capital. Long term increases in social capital helped Finland become the world leader.

8. Increase internal social capital. This is best achieved by studying those schools that have achieved high levels already in spite of the current conditions. Rapid dissemination of how they have achieved this will contribute to significant improvement in schools with low levels of social capital. But each school needs to do this in relation to their resources and particular contexts.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.