Principals face increasing burnout

Published: Monday 8th December 2014

Australian principals and assistant principals severely lack the support to face the growing pressure of increased workloads, public accountability, aggressive parents and violent students, according to The 2014 Teachers Health Fund Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey Report released today.


The survey, conducted by the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU), included 2,621 principals and 1,024 assistant principals from primary and secondary schools across urban, suburban, large towns, rural and remote locations from around the country.


Report author ACU Associate Professor Philip Riley said the survey clearly showed that these highly dedicated school leaders were committed to running schools as effectively as possible but the personal cost was increasingly high.


“The high emotional demands these school leaders face, together with a lack of systemic support and training, means we see higher levels of burnout and stress. Worryingly, it is also taking a toll on their greatest support group: their families. Work‐family conflict occurs at approximately double the rate of the general population,” said Associate Professor Riley.


The greatest source of stress for all respondents across every sector in each state and territory is the sheer quantity of work and increasing prevalence of offensive behaviour they have to deal with. Compared to the general population, principals experience a higher prevalence of violence (seven times higher), threats of violence (five times higher), and adult‐adult bullying (four times higher).


Parents are most likely to be perpetrators when it comes to bullying and threats, with these incidences on the rise. The percentage of principals who had experienced parents threatening violence has increased from 19% in 2011 to 25% in 2014, and violent threats made by students have increased from 17% to 24% over the same period.


Students were found to be far more likely to follow through on threats, with one in four principals reporting physical assault from a student.


“Principals regularly face the challenge of communicating the way education policy is both developed and practiced to teachers, parents and students in emotionally charged situations,” said Associate Professor Riley. “Learning solely on the job, rather than through a systematic training process and appropriate support structure leaves them unfairly unprepared and ill‐equipped to deal with the emotional toll it can take.


“What is encouraging however, is that despite the obstacles they face they are generally positive about their job and still report high levels of job satisfaction,” he added.


The report outlines four key recommendations:

1. Introduce professional support: Develop policies to address the growing job complexity and demanding emotional aspects of the role.

2. Increase professional learning: Provision of skill development in the emotional aspects of the leadership role.

3. Review work practices: Develop practices to address the disproportionate level of demand to resources available. This is dangerous to the long‐term health and wellbeing of principals.

4. Establish an independent authority to address increasing bullying and violence: Investigate the differences in occupational risk to determine who is at risk, why and what can be done to protect principals and assistant principals.


Teachers Health Fund CEO Brad Joyce said the fund has seen the need for mental health services from members almost double over the past five years. “This increase in demand, together with the outcomes of the report, highlight the need to better support our principals and teachers at a personal, community, industry and policy level, to ensure not only their health and wellbeing, but also the future of the children they guide and teach.”


The full report can be found at