For a number of years the evidence has been telling us that school principal wellbeing is on the decline. Only last week a principal in Western Australia died at her desk.
It's sad and shocking and it's a very clear reminder of just how much they are suffering.
The research of Associate Professor Philip Riley from the Australian Catholic University's Institute showed that principals are experiencing workplace demands that are 1.5 times higher than the general population.
That makes them subject to higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), and depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).
Why, I hear you ask? The answer is complicated but it was the focus of our research.
Without a doubt the workloads of principals have increased exponentially for a multitude of reasons.
The risk-adverse nature of our society means they have more reporting and compliance to do. This ensures that standards are met, that principals are delivering on expectations of students, parents, staff, the community, the department and even of themselves.
However as a service giving profession like nurses, there has been a long-standing view (often held by the principal themselves) that they are required to do all of this in addition to their more publicly perceived role of leading the school.
They have less time to lead, mentor and support staff as well as engage with students, which is the reason they became an educator in the first place.
Principals interrupted 70 times a day
Our research found a principal's administrative load is about 25 per cent of their available time, with 34 per cent of this completed outside of school hours.
They have more than 12 different and distinct areas of work, many of which require different skills sets as well as emotional agility in order to cope while moving from one highly stressful task to another.
The stakeholders are far more demanding than ever. In our research, some principals were interrupted on average 70 times a day in school hours.
In an age where their accountability and pressure is high and far more visible than ever with social media, any mistake that is made in a school finds itself on the front page of the newspaper and is blown up with hyperbole, thus they agonise over every decision.
Social media itself has led to all sorts of challenges for principals in the student and staff population, as well as the parent body.
Lastly, the sheer volume of work and the rise of portable technology means they simply never turn off, working evenings and weekends to keep up. It's a lonely job.
All in all what we discovered is that being a school principal is the broadest and most complex job we have examined.
Not only is it emotionally draining, it's varied and requires an amazing amount of self-control, critical thinking and agility.
A behemoth of a challenge
So how do we help principals improve their wellbeing? It's a behemoth of a challenge, with more than 3,000 principals across NSW and over 9,300 across Australia.
While there are common threads in the challenges they face, they have different geographical locations, cultural differences, socio-economic differences and differences in between primary and secondary to contend with.
There's no one solution, quick fix or silver bullet. It's involves a change in approach among students, parents, staff, government and principals and society as a whole.
It's a mix of students, parents, staff, government and principals as well as societies changing as a whole that have given rise to the situation today.
The way in which we work and live today is very different (for example, the introduction of the smart phone has changed the way we interact), and this impacts on each of these stakeholders, culminating in an extraordinarily difficult role for principals as the centre point within a school environment.
It's evident that the role of the principals has significantly changed and the load is simply too great for any one person to continue to bear.
The Riley report made recommendations for principal wellbeing that suggested increasing the principals' connection to the people with whom they work, helping them work more effectively, and improving their work-life balance.
From our research we designed a 12-month program to address the issues facing the principals, acknowledging that the job has dramatically changed over the years and focussing on:
Wellbeing, especially recovery using strategies to rest, reset and reflect;
Efficiency, which focuses on reducing interruptions with better email and telephone use, as well as effective and healthy use of portable technology;
Resilience which focuses coping with unhelpful thoughts and emotions using different psychological techniques; and
Purpose which focuses on reconnecting them back to their passion for the role and the reason they became a principal in the first place.
There are also many ideas for strategies involving stakeholders, including educating parents on the role of principals and whom they should go to for which concerns (ie. often issues regarding individual students can be dealt with at a teacher level); changes or reductions to the compliance requirements of principals; and a streamlining of school administration systems — although it would take time for the impact to be noticeable.
Less being led astray, more leading
Among the 228 principals involved in the project, there was a marked (360 per cent) increase in number coping well, and huge reductions in the number just coping or having difficulties coping; a 56 per cent improvement in how positive they felt about work; an increase in work-life balance; and boost in reported energy levels when they went home.
[kids in a classroom]
Twenty per cent of principals went into the program with the mentality that they were going to leave the profession because of the stress. They are all now staying, and many of them have received promotions.
Efficiency had improved drastically with time required to complete admin and compliance reduced, mainly due to them controlling their environment better (reducing the amount of time spent on email and the phone) and shutting their door to have periods of time with no distractions.
Importantly, the time gained was then spent on leading people, developing staff and engaging with students.
Dr Adam Fraser led The Flourish Project, a collaboration with the Deakin University Business School and The Shoalhaven Primary Principals' Council designed to reduce burnout and boost efficiency for principals.