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Managing the Pressures of Being a Principal

by Caroline Knight and Daniela Andrei

‘One in five school principals is overwhelmed by workplace stress’ is the title of one news article[1], and another laments the recent event of a principal in Western Australia found dead at her desk[2].

The job of a school principal is undoubtedly complex, requiring self-control, critical thinking and agility. The job can be emotionally draining. Current estimates suggest that the demands of the job are 1.5 times higher than those of the general population, with the associated incidence of burnout being 1.6 times higher, stress 1.7 times higher, sleeping difficulties 2.2 times higher, and depressive symptoms 1.3 times higher [1]. Another recent report suggests that nearly half of all teachers say they experience a high level of stress every day which can lead to irritability, mood swings, exhaustion, depression, and anxiety[3].


Emma agrees her job as a school principal is stressful. On top of a relentless workload, having to manage change is one of the biggest challenges. Some people ‘jump on board’ and are ‘ready to go’ whereas others ‘you have to nudge along’. Sometimes, people just don’t want things to change.


Another challenge is having to reign in demands facing the school from external sources. To maintain focus and avoid stretching resources beyond capacity, Emma must make decisions about which opportunities to take advantage of and which to let go. This can be hard, particularly when everyone can have a different view of what the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do is. Whilst it is empowering to be able to make these decisions, Emma acknowledges it can feel a little lonely at times.


What helps Emma to cope with the pressures of the job?


Apart from the fact that she loves the work because of the chance to make a difference, support from colleagues is an important aspect of her work. Research shows that social support can buffer the negative effects of job demands, such as stress, burnout, and poor performance[4]. It seems that Emma’s job is highly socially embedded, with numerous interactions with other staff and parents. Grant and Parker[5] identify the importance of the relational aspect of work design and it is this aspect which seems particularly important for success in this role, and upon which Emma seems to thrive.


Recovery is also important. Emma manages the demands of her job by walking her dog as well as by imposing a rule that she does not read work emails over the weekend. She encourages her staff to do the same, and asks that really urgent matters, which cannot be left over the weekend, are communicated to her via a phone call.  These steps enable Emma to detach from the work.


Emma’s strategy accords with research showing that recovery from work is essential for employee well-being and performance, preventing stress and burnout, and providing the individual with the resources necessary to deal efficiently with the new day ahead.


When that new day involves as many challenges as faced by the average school principal, returning to school after the weekend feeling refreshed is especially important.


[1] Robinson, N. (2018, February 21). School principals at higher risk of burnout, depression due to workplace stress, survey finds. ABC News Online. Retrieved from:

[2] Fraser, A. (2018, March 9). ‘It’s a lonely job’: how can we help stressed-out principals? ABC News Online. Retrieved from:

[3]Ansley, B. M., Meyers, J., McPhee, K., Varjas, K. (2018, March 2). The hidden threat of teacher stress, The Conversation. Retrieved from:  

[4] Bakker, A. B. & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: state of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309-328.

[5]Grant, A. M. & Parker, S. P. (2009). The Academy of Management Annals, 3(1), 317-375. 

Behind The Scenes

We head towards the small administrative quarters of the school just after the morning recess. Heading there, we see Emma hurrying towards her car. She had to leave for a few minutes, the administrative assistant tells us, but she will be right back. Indeed, in about 10 minutes Emma is back and our interview can start. These things can happen quite often she said, only yesterday she was caught up in several meetings outside the school.


Emma’s office is situated at the end of the admin quarter and is cosy and quiet. She mentions that it doesn’t feel that it is fully her office – most of the things belong to the usual principal who Emma is substituting for, but she doesn’t seem very phased about it. We have the sense that spending time in this office is not what Emma likes to do anyway, she seems a very hands-on, involved Principal who likes to walk around the school and get involved in activities that are happening with the children.

Emma is a Principal at a small public school in WA. There are not many children running around. The atmosphere is calm and friendly compared to larger schools, and all the children seem to know each other. Normally, the Principal would also know each and every child in the school, and Emma is beginning to achieve this, despite only temporarily occupying the position of Principal. Emma appeared to be very active and involved in the school, trying to make her mark and implement a few of her ideas during her short stay.  

We noted that this is not the first time that Emma is substituting a Principal, she has taken on a few of these temporary appointments in the past 2 years, at different schools across WA. Her usual role is as Deputy Principal but she has enjoyed the opportunities provided by the Principal position and is now considering a full transition to a Principal role.

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