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Dr Therese Dicke: Educator Health and Wellbeing at Risk: Australia’s School Leader Occupational Crisis

Australia is facing a severe occupational crisis concerning the health and wellbeing of school leaders, compromising both their own welfare and the wellbeing of our schools. Perpetuated by enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, administrative burdens, and frequent policy changes, the mounting challenges confronting school principals has reached a critical point. All Australian educators, including principals, are under escalating pressure and occupational strain, resulting in surges in burnout, depression, and even self-harm tendencies.

Collaborating with peak principal organisations, longitudinal findings from the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Survey unveil alarming trends. Our longitudinal data consistently highlights the top stressors for principals: excessive workload and non-teaching demands. Despite the persistence of these stressors, systemic reforms are notably absent, with sheer quantity of work remaining the primary stressor for school leaders year after year. These factors erode the resilience of school principals, diminishing their roles. Moreover, up to 70 percent of Australian educators intend to exit the profession, exacerbating critical shortages, which Australia has declared as an immediate national priority.

These trends present societal costs, especially to students, particularly those most reliant on healthy and engaged educators.  The persistence and apparent escalation of offensive behaviours in schools is an immediate concern. Incidents of physical violence against school leaders have surged by 76.5% since the survey's inception in 2011, with threats of violence remaining unacceptably high, often perpetrated by parents and students. It is imperative to acknowledge the significance of fostering healthy school climates, necessitating interventions aimed at improving principal wellbeing.

Research consistently underscores the pivotal role of principals and their leadership behaviours in fostering teacher wellbeing, which, in turn, correlates positively with student engagement, achievement, and wellbeing. Moreover, principals' conduct significantly influences students' wellbeing, thereby impacting student outcomes. Empowering school leaders with decision-making autonomy and dedicated resources to alleviate unnecessary tasks is a crucial factor in enhancing principal wellbeing.

The importance of the school environment, particularly leadership quality and relational dynamics, aligns with the principles of Self-Determination Theory. Similar to students, educators require autonomy to thrive. Our research indicates that many principals feel deprived of the autonomy needed for effective work. Substantial evidence suggests that psychosocial variables such as wellbeing, job commitment, and teaching quality improve in autonomy-supportive environments. Autonomy-supportive values acknowledge educators' expertise, granting them freedom and encouragement in decision-making, thereby fostering staff empowerment and success. Conversely, hierarchical environments characterised by micromanagement and bureaucratic hurdles breed feelings of over-control, diminishing collegiality, fostering organisational distrust, and escalating attrition rates.

We propose a conceptual framework wherein autonomy-supportive environments for school leaders lead to a healthy school climate, resulting in enhanced wellbeing, engagement, and retention among staff and students (see Figure 1). Conversely, over-controlled environments lead to a deteriorating school climate, culminating in diminished wellbeing, engagement, and retention.

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Funding is required to research the effective coordination of strategies and resources by school leaders, particularly in addressing their autonomy needs and fostering a healthy school climate, is crucial in nurturing a robust educator workforce. This research must prioritise addressing principal autonomy needs and fostering healthy school climates. Our longitudinal results urgently signal the need for funded programs designed to understand and implement the systemic changes required. Without immediate and targeted interventions, Australia's critical occupational crisis among school leaders may exert lasting repercussions on education quality and institutional wellbeing.

Associate Professor Therese Dicke is Deputy Director / Educational and Developmental Psychology Program Leader at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. She is a chief investigator in the research team that produced the 2023 Australian Principals’ Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey.

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