Principals struggle with long hours, ‘overwhelming’ workloads and hostility

Key points

  • About 48 per cent of principals are at risk of “serious mental health concern” including burnout, a survey has found.
  • A record 44 per cent of principal respondents say they have been subjected to physical violence. 
  • Long hours, admin requirements, staff shortages and concerns about student and staff mental health are principals’ top concerns. 
  • Job satisfaction and commitment fell in 2022, although they remain highest among Victorian principals. 

Sally Buick doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week or spend every Saturday in her office catching up on admin. But being a principal can be all-consuming.

“I don’t think I’m a lone ranger, I don’t think I’m doing things really badly, or not delegating, or I’m doing too much,” she said. “I just think it’s the nature of the job.”

Killester College principal Sally Buick says principals find their workloads extraordinary and at times overwhelming.Credit:Simon Schluter

And as the school staffing crisis deepens, Buick, who is principal of Killester College in Springvale, is concerned the next generation of teachers are turning their backs on leadership roles.

“Part of the problem is, now, the really good ones and the ones that would be the leaders of the future are looking at what we’re doing and saying, ‘I don’t want that.’ They don’t want the 60-hour weeks and no work-life balance, and not being able to spend time with your family.”

After years of pandemic-induced stress, the latest annual survey of 2500 principals paints a bleak picture.

More school leaders than ever are being subjected to physical violence and almost one in two are deemed to be “at risk of serious mental health concern”, including burnout, in the coming years. The level of stress recorded rose by about 50 per cent across all school systems – government, Catholic and independent – last year alone. Specialist school principals fared the worst.

“This should set off alarm bells,” said report investigator Paul Kidson, of Australian Catholic University.

The ACU survey found the top stressors for principals were quantity of work – they reported working 56.2 hours a week during school term and 22.2 hours during holidays – and the time required for work that is not teaching.

Teacher shortages were the third-biggest source of stress, while concerns about the mental health of students and staff were at their highest levels since the ACU began the survey in 2011.

The report warned the health and wellbeing of many school leaders was at a tipping point, and if left unaddressed it could jeopardise Australia’s goal to provide a world-class education system.

Top stressors for principals

Kidson said the drop in job satisfaction and commitment among principals was concerning.

“All of us go through crisis periods, but when you’ve got the fire in the belly to keep going, you will,” he said. “One year is not a trend, but that’s what’s causing me most concern, that they’re saying, ‘It’s probably not worth it any more.’ ”

The good news for Victoria is that the state’s principals reported the highest job satisfaction and had the lowest number of mental health red flags.

But across Australia, hostility towards principals has returned after a lull during the first year of the pandemic. Almost 49 per cent of respondents said they had been threatened with violence and a further 44 per cent had been subjected to physical violence. Almost half reported being the subject of gossip and slander.

“2022 … saw the second-highest percentage of school leaders being subjected to threats of violence in the last 12 years,” the report said.

Kidson said parents and carers needed to be positive contributors to their school communities, rather than engaging in “gossip, slandering, aggressive, bullying behaviour”.

Victorian Education Minister Natalie Hutchins said the government banned abusive parents during school hours to ensure staff were treated with the respect they deserved.

“We’re backing our teachers, school leaders and principals with a record investment in education, ensuring they have the resources and support they need to deliver the best start for Victorian kids,” she said.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the wellbeing of educators was fundamental to the wellbeing of students.

He said the government was working closely with state and territory governments, principal groups, unions and experts to tackle the issue of teacher shortages.

Buick said her principal peers found their workloads extraordinary and, at times, overwhelming.

“And they’re wonderful people and they love their work, are just so committed to education and young people. But it’s starting to be a bit scary about what the cost is.”

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