School principals need better health and wellbeing protection

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Principals in Victorian schools experience worse health and wellbeing outcomes than the general population, especially relating to stress, burnout and sleeping troubles. They also experience mental injury more often than other school staff.

The findings from a Victorian Auditor-General’s Office report that was tabled in Victorian Parliament on Thursday, 22 June, also determined that the Education Department was not effectively protecting the health and wellbeing of principals.

Although the Principal Health and Wellbeing Report also highlighted some progress that has been made – including 28 initiatives aimed at improving principals’ health and wellbeing since 2018 –  further efforts to improve the situation were hampered by a lack of consistent monitoring and evaluation. The result, the report said, is an Education Department that does not fully understand the workplace health of its school principals.

Call for reduced workloads for Victorian principals

In 2022, Victorian principals worked an average of 55 hours per week during school term and 21 hours during holidays. According to the report, current programs were unlikely to reduce workloads enough to promote a healthier workplace.

“These monitoring, evaluation and reporting shortcomings mean that the department does not understand the health and wellbeing of its school principals,” the report said. “It also does not understand whether its initiatives are achieving intended outcomes.”

To avoid principals leaving the sector, Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said urgent measures should be taken to provide greater support for stressed school principals.

“Workloads for Victorian public school principals have been unmanageable for many years, and the role and expectations of principals is entirely unsustainable,” she said.

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Data from the latest national survey of 2500 principals informed the report, which shows one in two school leaders are at risk of serious mental health concerns, with almost half (44 per cent) reporting physical violence.

Between 2015 and 2021, according to the Auditor-General’s report, mental injury was the highest cause of principals’ workers compensation claims. It made up almost half (48 per cent) of claims, compared to an average of 29 per cent of claims made by teachers.

In the five years to 2018, 19 principals were identified as a high risk for potential self harm, or had already self-harmed or been institutionalised, the report said.

By 2019, principals spent more time dealing with administrative tasks than they did on matters directly connected to the curriculum, teaching and performance, strategy, planning, budget and governance and policy activities.

Principals in Victorian government schools report marginally lower job satisfaction than non-government school principals but, despite what seem like shocking figures around wellbeing issues, both score consistently better than principals in other Australian states and territories.

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Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said the report was a warning sign that urgent measures should be taken to avoid a mass exodus of principals.

“Workloads for Victorian public school principals have been unmanageable for many years, and the role and expectations of principals is entirely unsustainable,” she said.

Change needed to address record stress levels

Victorian Principals Association president Andrew Dalgleish agreed there was more to do to reduce the workload of principals and address the issue in a sustainable and meaningful way, with the Australian Principals Federation president Tina King saying that government needed to take more significant steps to listen to principals, provide support and redesign their roles in a way that would see responsibilities shared across leadership teams within schools.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]