When it comes to supporting well-being in the public education sphere, principals tend to be an afterthought. Some stakeholders subscribe to the notion that principals should expect to experience some degree of stress and work complexity, and that they are rewarded for the increased responsibility and risk with higher salaries, some additional benefits, and a greater sense of social prestige. Many would also argue that, after students, teachers’ health and well-being is second most important overall, as they are widely considered the front-line workers in education. Given that there are more teachers than principals, this argument could also be based on volume. As a result, it appears that principals have become less of a priority. I would argue, however, that it is equally significant and timely to consider school leaders’ well-being.
Although there may be fewer principals in the public education system than teachers, this does not necessarily mean they have less influence on student success. As education scholar Ken Leithwood has argued for years, “There is no documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership.”1 Principals who are struggling with burnout or their own personal well-being are less able to support teaching and learning in their schools.
In this context, “well-being” refers not only to an absence of any kind of distress associated with our cognitive functions, emotional state, social interactions, or physical health, but also to having a feeling of joy, contentment, fulfillment, happiness, and accomplishment.2 School principals have great pride and joy in their work, even when they simultaneously experience symptoms of burnout. For example, in a study I led in 2013, 78 percent of surveyed Ontario principals indicated that they were satisfied with their job most of the time, 91 percent of principals believed their school was a good place to work, and 92 percent of principals felt their job makes a meaningful difference in the school community.3
Although most Ontario principals are satisfied with their job, this does not mean their work is easy. Despite school leaders’ positive outlook, they work long hours: Principals in Ontario work, on average, 59 hours per week, and in some other jurisdictions they work more. Principals are also completing a higher number of regular tasks associated with their position. For example, they have always been involved with discipline issues, but now these issues are becoming more complex, involving new challenges such as cyberbullying. On top of increasing traditional daily tasks, principals now have additional roles connected to student well-being.
Moreover, advances in information and communication technology mean principals work in faster paced environments with higher expectations and demands – a process known as “work intensification.” As one principal described it: “There is no job so draining.” Even more concerning, 21 percent of the surveyed principals said that, if they could relive their career, they would have remained teachers or pursued careers in another sector.
Principals are feeling these changes in their work. As one study participant explained:
It is a role that never gets smaller. Nothing ever comes off the plate. It is just more that gets added to the plate. The bottom line is the plate is only so big. You can only get so much on it.
One significant symptom of principals’ work intensification is burnout. One principal described the impact of these work demands on their physical and mental well-being:
I will ask for a move, just because I’m finding that I’m tired, personally. I mean I have high expectations for myself and what I deem [is] acceptable for me – and I don’t feel that I’m acting on all 150 cylinders. That’s, to me, a weakness… I just feel that I’m just not as effective as I was two or three years ago. It’s constant.
Specifically, our research determined that the more time principals spend on student discipline/attendance, working with parents, and district school board office committees, the more likely the work will put them in emotionally draining situations. Principals only spend, on average, five hours per week on curriculum and instruction – a number that 82 percent of the principals from the 2013 survey would like to see increased.
There are several ways principals manage their workload. Some are individual coping strategies similar to those recommended for anyone working in a stressful environment—spending time with loved ones, being physically active, and cultivating hobbies outside the workplace, for example. Based on recent studies, however, there are some strategies and practices specific to the role of the principal that school leaders can use to promote and manage their own well-being.
Cultivating informal peer networks
Some principals find it useful to connect with other school leaders to share, troubleshoot, and problem-solve in a nonthreatening context. Principals can also associate with other work colleagues, especially those in similar roles. However, only 18 percent of principals in the 2013 study indicated that they have high or very high levels of interaction with other principals. One principal told us:
Being a principal can be a lonely job, but it is only lonely if you let it be. You don’t have to make all the decisions on your own. There are 27 other principals out there that I can call on the phone, and others have called me as well that have their own strengths and weaknesses and specialties and that sort of thing. So, you can call them and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with this particular kind of situation, what do you think?’
Principals can rely on their leader colleagues for guidance and support, and prevent isolation by reaching out to their informal network of peers. These informal networks often begin with encounters at formal meetings/events/gatherings – such as district meetings and professional learning opportunities from associations and higher education institutions – but they continue on an informal basis, usually with the aid of communication technology such as phone calls, texting, Twitter, LinkedIn events, and Facebook chat.
Place boundaries around email communication
Principals described the impact email and social media as a “double-edged sword.”4 On the one hand, these tools allow principals to reach multiple stakeholders simultaneously, complete more work tasks than before, and create an accountability trail in ways not previously possible. On the other hand, they increase principals’ volume of communication, extend their workdays and workload, increase their pace of work, and blur the boundaries between work and home.
Principals can better manage email overload by setting personal boundaries around its use to delineate between their home and work lives. By choosing to only check email at certain times, or removing email access from their personal devices, principals can ensure they have time to “turn off.”
One participant described their strategy in detail:
A strategy was to not take my laptop because that’s where I get my email now. I would not take it home on weekends… And I’d show up Monday morning extra-early: 7:00 a.m. [to catch up on email]. That worked for me. I’m an early morning person anyway.
Another told us:
I don’t have email on my phone. I took it off five years ago. And it was one of the best strategies I used.
Buffering staff from initiatives
Ministries of Education and school boards regularly expect educators to implement multiple initiatives. For many teachers and principals, these initiatives can translate into additional pressure, stress, and workload.5 Principals can engage in strategies to mediate the cumulative impact on school staff.
At first, it might appear that this buffering, while protecting teachers’ well-being, is additional work for principals that would add to their job stress. However, according to the principals in the 2013 study, as a result of buffering principals deal with fewer discipline issues and more satisfied parents, are better equipped to meet students’ needs, and have more time to work toward their schools’ annual goals – all of which contribute to a more manageable workload and decrease burnout.
How principals use these strategies will depend on their personal needs and preferences. The key to success is engaging in the selected strategies intentionally and over a prolonged period, and being mindful of when the boundary between work and home begins to blur.
I do not want to solely focus on what principals themselves can do, however. Some aspects of principals’ work context are the result of policies, mandated practices or social realities that are outside of their control, and therefore it is unreasonable to think that individual school leaders merely need to be more resilient or learn different kinds of coping strategies. Principals alone cannot mitigate all of the factors that influence their well-being. They need support from school boards, professional associations, and/or provincial or territorial governments as well.
Organizations and institutions can actively support principals’ well-being. System support can come from several different sources: district school boards, professional associations, higher education institutions, and in Canada, provincial and territorial governments.
For example, ministries and departments of education can consider the current organizational structure of public schooling. School operations are growing increasingly complex as a result of increased accountability, advances in technology, changing approaches to leadership and schooling, and advances in how we understand student learning and teaching – to name a few. And yet, little has changed for principals in their work structure. If governing bodies want school leaders to be the agents of change who lead improvements in student outcomes, then consideration must be given to their role. There has always been a fragile balance in the principal role between being a manager/administrator and being the lead learner in schools. Lately, the scales have tipped toward the paperwork and policy aspects at the expense of facetime and instructional leadership. One way to reduce principals’ stress and avoid burnout is to create a dedicated school building management position. Implementing this structural change and creating this new position would distribute some of the managerial and administrative aspects of principals’ work to this new role, allowing principals to dedicate more time and energy to being lead learners in their schools.
Professional associations can also play an integral part in supporting principals. As mentioned earlier, the pool of active principals is small compared to other groups of educators in the public sector and often the voice of school leaders can be overlooked. Moreover, the general public has perceptions and assumptions about principals and their work – but many of these are unfortunately inaccurate. For there to be any level of system change, there first needs to be public and system awareness. It is essential for professional associations to intentionally devise public awareness campaigns targeting school leaders’ well-being concerns, because public awareness is one way to generate the necessary public and political will to positively allocate resources for principals. Another way professional associations can support principals’ well-being is to advocate on their behalf for access to services that might not be found within the education system – such as different forms of professional counselling and support groups, and other services within the health field such as suitable coverage for massage therapy and physiotherapy, for example.
Professional learning opportunities
Unsustainable work-life practices can lead to role overload and burnout. For this reason, district school boards need to target professional learning in two ways:
- Profesional learning that focuses on job-embedded skills and knowledge that allow school functioning to improve, thus mitigating the factors that contribute to burnout and emotional exhaustion. For example, effective leadership styles and management practices can improve school climate, reducing the number of emotionally draining incidents.
- Professional learning opportunities regarding well-being and work–life balance, with a focus on the various strategies principals can use to cope with the changing nature of their work. In these forms of professional learning, principals learn how to recognize various forms of stress (emotional, physical, cognitive, and social) and how to employ strategies to cope with these stresses, such as progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, meditation, and positive communication strategies when saying “no.”
If we want healthy, positively productive schools, then we need to consider the well-being of all those within the school environment. This means caring for the well-being of school principals as well. Most principals are resilient and resourceful and many engage in positive coping strategies that help them reduce burnout and succeed at their work, but their success also depends on support from the organizations in which they work. Principals are a part of a larger public system where existing structures and processes influence them on a daily basis, but are beyond their control. It is at this larger scale that provincial and territorial governments, district school boards and professional associations need to consider the role they must play in supporting principals’ well-being.
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2017
1 Kenneth Leithwood et al., “School Leaders’ Influences on Student Learning: The four paths,” in The Principles of Educational Leadership and Management, eds. T. Bush, L. Bell, and D. Middlewood (London: Sage, 2012), p. 1.
2 Nic Marks and Heten Shah, “A Well-Being Manifesto for a Flourishing Society,” Journal of Public Mental Health 4 no. 2 (2004): 9–15.
3 Katina Pollock, Fei Wang, and Cameron Hauseman, The Changing Nature of Principals’ Work: Final report (October 2014): 1–42. www.edu.uwo.ca/faculty-profiles/docs/other/pollock/OPC-Principals-Work-Report.pdf
4 Katina Pollock and D. Cameron Hauseman, “The Use of Email and Principals’ Work: A double-edged sword,” Leadership and Policy in Schools (2017).
5 Kenneth Leithwood and Vera N. Azah, Elementary Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Workload Studies: Final report (2014): 1–100. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/memos/nov2014/FullElementaryReportOctober7_EN.pdf