Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

Principal stress: Overworked principals are burned-out and 'just surviving'

The vast majority of primary school principals are working large amounts of overtime, struggling with limited resources and huge demands. Picture / 123RF
The vast majority of primary school principals are working large amounts of overtime, struggling with limited resources and huge demands. Picture / 123RF

The vast majority of primary school principals are working large amounts of overtime, struggling with limited resources and huge demands, and some are "just surviving".

Levels of stress and burn-out among school leaders are higher than the general population. Many are working extra hours with no pay, working through the holidays and struggling to sleep because of the demands of the job - all putting their health and personal lives at risk, a new report released today said.

The Principal's Health and Well-being Survey 2016, commissioned by primary sector union the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), spoke to 398 principals (20 per cent) across the country, and 14 deputy and assistant principals.

It found 72 per cent work more than 51 hours per week, and 25 per cent work more than 61 hours during term time.

And contrary to popular opinion about teachers and their excess holidays, 92 per cent reported at least 10 hours, and half of respondents reported working more than 25 hours, during school holidays.

"Anyone who thinks that teachers are in it for the holidays is absolutely totally wrong," NZEI president Lynda Stuart said.

"If that was the case we would have a queue of people miles long to do the job, and [the media] wouldn't be reporting staff shortages."

Principals "spend a vast amount of that time doing the work they need to do for their pupils", she said, including training and preparing for the term ahead.

Most teachers and principals will have been back at work for two weeks, she said.

The report found burn-out was 1.7 times the general population, and work-family conflict 2.2 times higher. This rose higher again in rural and isolated areas where less professional support is available.

Principals pointed the finger at the sheer quantity of work they have to do as the main cause of their elevated stress levels, followed by a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning - a key Government focus - and the impact of Government initiatives.

"[Principals] spend very long hours at work, both during term time and during term breaks," the report said.

"The number of hours worked appears to have no relation to salary."

School leaders seemed driven by a desire to see schools running effectively, it said.

However, some in the job were "just surviving".

"Principals experience high levels of emotional demands and emotional labour when compared to the general population," the report said.

"This correlated with higher levels of burnout and stress symptoms."

Stress was reported at 1.8 times the general population, and problems sleeping reported at 2.4 times higher.

Women in particular reported "significantly higher" rates of burnout and problems sleeping than their male counterparts.

However, it noted that most principals and school leaders had a healthy alcohol intake, and did not take to the bottle to manage stress.

"Too many participants are working too many hours," the report concluded, adding that it was having the greatest toll on their families.

"This level of demand is dangerous to the long-term health and well-being of principals who find consistently that the resources available to them are not concomitant with the demands," it said.

"The cost to the nation of the mental health challenges produced by this kind of work culture is high."

The results were worrying, Stuart said.

"The report found that school leaders face considerable pressure in their roles, most often from increasing workload caused by new Government initiatives," she said.

"The stress of trying to budget to meet the needs of every student despite increasingly inadequate funding must also play a part."

The situation was "not sustainable", Stuart said, and was "now a major health and safety risk the Government must address".

Karl Le Quesne, acting head of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education said there had been a "significant increase in support" for principals this year.

The Communities of Learning initiative, in which schools collaborate, was helping to form professional support networks, he said.

"Principals in Communities of Learning are now able to have access to an educational expert who can act as a support, mentor or adviser.

"And we're offering support to first time principals with 20 fulltime mentors available across the country."

Workload 'relentless' and Govt demands keep us from teaching - principal

Dressed in his DIY clothes, Peter Hopwood, principal at Donovan Primary School in Invercargill, is busy fixing the radiators before term starts next week.

Peter Hopwood Prinicpal of Donovan Primary School in Invercargill. Picture / Supplied
Peter Hopwood Prinicpal of Donovan Primary School in Invercargill. Picture / Supplied



Doing jobs that are not teaching is a regular occurrence, he says, describing himself as an accountant, social worker and property maintenance worker.

"We're trying to raise [student] achievement, and some days that's the last thing on your mind because we're dealing with social problems, and behaviour problems and we're social workers for many families," he said.

Hopwood can relate to the findings in the report, saying it's difficult for principals to juggle all the demands expected of them, including budgeting, payroll, health and safety, and implementing new Government policies, as well as teaching and leading the school.

His role should be teaching children how to be successful in today's modern world and helping their teachers be the best they can be, he said, "not working out how I can replace the roof above them".

He described the job as "relentless", and said it's "not uncommon" to hear of principals leaving the profession because of the high workload and stress levels.

"I think all the things in the report are real. We hear and see very sad stories of burned-out principals, people leaving the profession."

He could easily work more than 50 hours a week, Hopwood said: "Some weeks I could have done 40 hours before we get to Wednesday."

Support networks with other principals were "invaluable to me", Hopwood said.

This problem was even greater for rural principals, he said, who struggled with isolation and tight budgets that made it even more difficult to attend professional development or networking and support events.

He called for the job to be made more attractive - better remuneration and support, particularly for rural schools - to encourage younger people to see the job as a career.

A slowdown in Government initiatives was also at the top of his list.

"It's just been constant over the last five, six years since National Standards came in," he said. "It's been like a steamroller."

In addition, he wanted to see more collaboration between the ministry and schools when it came to developing new initiatives, so they could be more tried and tested before being rolled out nationally.

"Together we could probably have worked out better solutions."

- NZ Herald

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