Biggest Cause of Stress

“Sheer quantity” of work biggest cause of stress

Employers are being urged to “take the moral choice” of reducing job demands or at least increasing resources, after a national survey of school principals showed the “sheer quantity” of work is their greatest source of stress.

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2015, overseen by former principal and Australian Catholic University associate professor Philip Riley, has reported annually since 2011, with about 40 per cent of Australia’s 10,000 principals and assistant or deputy principals participating overall, and 20 to 25 per cent participating each year.

The current report found principals’ working hours have increased during school terms over the past five years, with those who work more than 51 to 56 hours per week increasing from 70 per cent in 2011 to 76 per cent in 2015, and those who work more than 61 to 65 hours increasing from 24 per cent to 25 per cent.

During school holidays, however, the amount of principals who work more than 25 hours per week dropped from about 55 per cent in 2011 to 39 per cent in 2015, “hopefully showing a healthier work-life balance,” the report found.

It also found principals experience higher levels of burnout and stress symptoms (difficulty sleeping and depression) and poorer overall quality of life compared to the general population.

The greatest source of stress for all principals and assistant principals in every state and sector is the “sheer quantity of work, closely followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning”, it found.

Further, thoughts of self-harm (“red flag” responses) were double the rate of previous years – “a serious concern for the profession as a whole”.

The report found principals’ reports of positive measures of wellbeing – such as self-rated health, happiness, mental health, coping, relationships and self-worth – are lower than the population average, while all negative measures are higher.

Principals report 1.6 times the rate of burnout compared to the general population, 1.7 times the rate of stress, 2.2 times the rate of sleeping troubles, and 1.3 times the rate of depressive symptoms, it found.

Professor Riley says in the report that most of the challenges to principals’ OHS and wellbeing “relate to more general occupational conditions found across the country in every state and school sector”.

Riley makes numerous recommendations on what governments, professional associations, the community, schools and individual educators can do, including that employers “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,” he says.

He also recommends employers “trust rather than rule educators”.

“Leave the mechanisms for producing the best educators to the educators. This will also increase social capital.”

Principals subjected to high amounts of offensive behaviour

Principals and assistant principals experience “far higher prevalence” of offensive behaviour (sexual harassment, bullying, threats of violence and gossip and slander) at work each year than the general population, the report found.

“The levels were extremely high in 2011 and have since increased during the survey period,” the report says.

Adult-to-adult bullying increased from 4.1 times higher than the general population in 2011 to 4.3 times higher, threats of violence increased from 4.9 times higher to 5.3 times higher, and actual violence increased from seven times higher to eight times higher, it found.

NSW, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the ACT have “concerning upward trends” of prevalence rates, while South Australia and Queensland “have gone against this trend, and seen a fall in offensive behaviour during the survey period”, the report says.

Riley says in the report that the steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour “should give us pause”, and that it isn’t just occurring in schools, “with increases noted in all frontline professions and domestic violence rates that we should be nationally ashamed about”.

“Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this and set about addressing them at every level of society,” he says.