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Why Principal Wellbeing Should Matter to the Whole Community

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 10th March 2019

Employees today, across a range of industries, are experiencing increased work-related stress. The intensification of work, as technology speeds up the movement of data and increases time and deadline pressures, and the increasing complexity and pace of life, are making work-life balance more difficult to achieve for many. There is plenty of evidence to support the view that, like many others, school leaders around the world are experiencing increased levels of stress. This impacts on their wellbeing but may also have implications for their effectiveness in the role and even their tenure.

A number of studies in the field of work-related stress show a negative relationship between job stress and job performance. Research supports an individual as having a  zone of optimal functioning, with a preferred level of stress for optimal performance. Beyond this level of stress, their functioning is impaired and their effectiveness reduced. Healthy employees have also been shown to be more committed to their job, tending to work harder and provide higher levels of high-value customer service, more resilient and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and ambiguity.

Several studies have linked workplace stress with turnover of staff, with individuals reporting high stress levels more likely to resign their posts. In public school systems worldwide, we are currently witnessing a crisis of recruitment and retention of school leaders, which many are now linking to increasing stress levels. In the USA, only half of newly recruited principals remain in post for as long as three years, with less than 30% remaining for five years or more. In England, the crisis in recruitment and retention of head teachers is being increasingly linked to excessive workloads and high levels of stress. International schools are also exposed to challenges retaining leaders, with the average tenure of an international school head teacher being only 3.7 years. The cost of replacing lost staff can be considerable. While there is no standard formula, experts estimate that the total replacement cost of a leaver can be as much as 100% of the annual salary.

In addition to the cost, there are other factors to be taken into consideration when assessing the impact of school leader stress on the organisation. According to the OECD, as the key intermediary between the classroom, the individual school and the education system as a whole, effective school leadership is essential to improve the efficiency and equity of schooling. Stable school leadership matters to school performance based on a number of indicators. School leaders contribute to improved student learning by shaping the conditions and climate in which teaching and learning occur. Effective and stable school leadership impacts student outcomes, with grades increasing with the length of tenure of the head. It also influences teacher turnover, which decreases as leadership in a school becomes more stable. Leadership even affects teachers’ attitudes to change. Michael Fullan describes how teachers are much less likely to implement change in their classroom if they know that the principal is leaving, preferring to wait the leadership out rather than press forward with new initiatives.

Taking care of school leader wellbeing is not just about individual health and happiness. It can have much wider implications for the school as a whole and for students and staff. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that school leaders are fit and healthy enough to maximise their own performance and the performance of the school.