Offensive behaviour: a daily challenge (Headlines)

Principals have endured extraordinary levels of stress and disruption in the past few years and, understandably, their mental health has been impacted.

During our many principal consultations this year, members have reported on aggression from parents and guardians directed towards themselves or their staff on an almost daily basis.

The latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey from Australian Catholic University paints a dire picture, with principals facing increasing levels of abuse and violence compared to previous years.

The residual negative effect of COVID-19, coupled with other traumatic natural events such as floods and bushfires, caused an increase to the risks of long-term damage to principals’ health and wellbeing.

These results are alarming but unsurprising, as principals have been burdened with increasingly demanding workloads and complexity in their roles since the pandemic. Nevertheless, principals have increased their connections with families and continued to provide critical support to students and staff.

Appallingly, 84% of respondents reported being subjected to at least one form of offensive behaviour in 2022, up from 83% the previous year.

Half of all school leaders reported being targeted by three or more forms of offensive behaviour including threats of violence, physical violence, bullying, cyber bullying, gossip, slander, teasing and sexual harassment.

The use of anonymous school surveys is a significant contributor to stress. This is a severe work health and safety issue and there should be zero tolerance for this behaviour against principals.

The report confirmed some worrying trends in the rates of principals’ psychological ill-health and raised concerns as to how principals can possibly sustain working under such conditions.

Union membership makes a difference

The survey showed that we need to support school leaders by reshaping work practises, role demands and by targeting professional learning and creating a shared dialogue to address bullying and violence.

One principal said, “deflection and redirection of accountability by systems and central offices implies that the responsibility for principal resilience and ultimate health lies with the individual. If a principal appears to be struggling, often it is seen as a leadership and management issue, not a wellbeing concern.”

Union membership is vital for principals so that they can have access to individual representation, but also benefits secured through collective bargaining.

The IEU will continue to fight for a range of provisions to address and help manage principal workplace stress and enhance wellbeing.

Lyn Caton, Assistant Secretary/Principals Organiser

Read more from the November 2023 edition of Headlines.