The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey has consistently highlighted that many principals are at breaking point.

Overseen by the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE) at ACU in partnership with Deakin University, the Principals’ Wellbeing Project is funded by an ARC Linkage Grant and various industry partners who contribute cash and in-kind support to the project. The partners include the Teachers Health Fund, Catholic Church Insurance, The Australian Primary Principals Association, The New South Wales Secondary Principals Council and the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.

Professor Herb Marsh, Chief Investigator, said a national crisis is looming as 70% of principals plan to retire soon, and fewer people are willing to step into the role.

“More concerning is the level of offensive behaviour directed at principals with 45% reporting that they had been threatened with violence in 2018, compared to 38% in 2011, and 37% reporting actual physical violence.

“Either the demands of being a principal must decrease, or the resources needed to match the demands must increase if the crisis is to be averted.”

The survey has run every year since 2011 in response to growing concern about principals’ wellbeing and approximately 50% of principals have participated nationally. Principals complete the survey online and receive individualised, real-time feedback on their health via scores comparing responses to 45 indicators with the general population, professional peers and themselves over time. A red flag indicator triggers an automatic response outlining available support services.

Professor Marsh pointed out that the Principals’ Wellbeing Project has had significant impact throughout Australia.

“The NSW Government has allocated $100 million to support principals, and the Victorian Government has allocated $4 million to provide health checks for principals,” he said.

“The Teachers Health Fund has reduced the waiting time for new members wishing to access psychological services from 12 to two months.

“And better support for school principals has been a policy of the Australian Greens since 2013.”

The Principals’ Wellbeing Project has expanded to Ireland and New Zealand, where the culture and education structures are similar. IPPE is also collaborating with the Finnish Principals Association to collect data in Finland in 2019, and there is strong interest from the International Confederation of Principals to conduct the research in more countries.

“Under-resourced, mistreated and overburdened with red tape, principals report that, compared to the general population, their job demands are 1.5 times higher, and they experience 1.7 times more stress, 2.2 times more difficulty sleeping and 1.3 times more depressive symptoms."
Professor Herb Marsh
Founder of the International SELF Research Centre and Emeritus Professor of Education at Oxford University

Impacts of this research


New technology, tools, software and design that improves people's lives.

  • The online self assessment survey enables principals to assess and track their health and well-being.
  • The survey promotes ways to improve school principals' wellbeing and addresses national strategic objectives in health.
  • Annual principal health reports contribute to professional sector and public policy approaches addressing the sector’s health and quality of life concerns.


Change that improves health and well-being outcomes in society

  • Teachers Health Fund reported that members’ utilisation rates for psychological services doubled between 2011 and 2015.
  • Each participant receives a comprehensive and individualised report.
  • The benefit to individual school leaders has increased both their participation rates and the veracity of the information they submit.


Change in professional behaviour and standards within a sector.

  • About 50 per cent of all Australian school principals have participated in multiple surveys.
  • Participation in the survey has also prompted behavioural change such as principals taking long service leave following high burn-out scores and trigger emails containing details of support services when self-harm is red-flagged.


Change in policy, organisational structure and formal processes.

  • Growing awareness of school principals’ health issues led to a range of state government responses across Australia. For example, under 2016 EBA for South Australian principals, the government allocated 10% of school leader workload to be spent on health and well-being, at the school leaders discretion.
  • Principals’ associations have used survey data to negotiate for interventions and improvements to conditions, including embedding the principal development programs.
  • Briefings with Federal and state departments have led to:
    • better support for school principals becoming Australian Greens policy in 2013,
    • named first priority by incoming Victorian Education Minister Merlino in December 2014.
  • Teachers Health Fund reduced waiting periods for new members wishing to access psychological services and added rebates for telephone based psychological services, making distance from capital cities less of a burden for rural communities. All other health funds have now introduced similar protocols.


The person, people or organisations directly impacted by this research.

  • State and Territory Education Departments
  • Australian Catholic Education Offices
  • School principals and their families
  • ACU secured a commitment from the International Confederation of Principals to conduct the research in the confederation's member countries.
  • US elementary and secondary principals’ associations and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (Private school licencing board), Dubai have requested to hold their own studies.
  • Ireland and New Zealand run the survey, with both country governments already committed to improve support for school leaders.

2018 ARC Engagement and Impact Assessment

ACU submitted this research as an impact study in the 2018 ARC Engagement and Impact Assessment. The research received the rank of 'Medium', meaning the impact made a significant contribution to economy, society, environment, or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research.

Explore our results
Lead researchers

Professor Herb Marsh
Founder of the International SELF Research Centre, recognised as the most productive educational psychologist in the world, Emeritus Professor of Education at Oxford University. 



Associate Professor Philip Riley
Associate Professor of Educational Leadership in ACU’s Faculty of Education and Arts (at the time of the 2018 Engagement and Impact Assessment) 

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