University study to explore the emotional demands Australian principals experience

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

A new study by Monash University researchers will enable public school principals to share their personal experiences of how issues around professional burnout and increased workload stress impact recruitment and retention in the Australian education sector.

The survey’s findings will be published on a public website, which will collect, curate, de-identify and then showcase stories from the principals. The site will offer a glimpse into the realities of the working lives of Australian school principals, and will also uncover deeper understandings of the many ways principals’ roles have evolved, and how they are expected to manage increasingly complex and emotional workloads.

The three-year project, which is funded by the Australian Research Council, will aim to improve leadership preparation and development for school principals to help them become better equipped to deal with changing workplace demands.

Revealing the invisible workload

Lead researcher, Professor Jane Wilkinson from the Faculty of Education, says the emotional intensity of principals’ work has often been an “invisible” element of their role.

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“Research needs to address not only the impact of excessive workload in terms of long hours (crucial though that is), but also the increased emotional intensity of this work. It’s the emotionally draining nature of the work, the ‘hard’ hours where principals are dealing with more and more demanding, emotionally-intense situations as they support troubled staff, students, and parents,” Professor Wilkinson said. “This ‘invisible’ element of a principal’s work plays a significant role in increasing the stressors that impact their health and wellbeing.”

Chief Investigator, Professor Lucas Walsh, believes that, although the breadth of this emotional workload is a critical aspect of the ongoing work school principals manage, not a lot is known about it – and its impact.

“Managing these competing demands, and the emotional capacity to switch seamlessly between interactions with diverse members of school communities, can affect health and wellbeing, including chronic stress, burnout, and low job satisfaction,” said Professor Walsh.

The search for recruitment and retention solutions

The project expects to generate new knowledge about principal workforce development and to create a framework for policymakers that identifies the knowledge and practices required to develop leaders’ emotional skills and build bridges across diverse communities.

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Researchers expect that further anticipated benefits of the survey will include reduced principal turnover, improved teacher retention, improved student outcomes and greater social cohesion.

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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]