A Hidden Crisis: School Leaders Are Struggling with Mental Well-Being
Just like teachers, school principals and superintendents are also struggling with mental health. What can be done to support their well-being?
There has been a significant amount of focus on the well-being and mental health of classroom teachers. And rightfully so — there’s a constant barrage of studies and surveys telling us that teachers are suffering undue stress and even burnout.
However, there has been significantly less focus on school leaders and principals.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) released results in December 2021 from a nationally representative survey of principals, exploring their perceptions of their role as a school leader.
The data was revealing: school leaders are struggling on many levels.
And a large percentage are considering leaving the profession.
NASSP President Gregg Wieczorek stated, “Recruiting and retaining school leaders will become even more difficult, if more is not done to support educators in our schools.”
School leaders are one of the key elements contributing to teacher success — and, in turn, to student performance.
Therefore, having healthy and effective school leaders is essential for positive student outcomes (Leithwood, Louis, and Anderson, 2012; Ni, Yan, and Pounder, 2018).
However, the fact is school leaders’ jobs have become increasingly complex due to a multitude of factors. A growing number of principals find it increasingly difficult to deal with the breadth and complexity of these many tasks (Riley, 2015a, 2015b, 2019), all of which will negatively impact their efficacy.
In a perfect world, the school leader’s central role would be as the “instructional leader,” making sure that all pieces are in place for students to excel and reach their potential.
Unfortunately, school leaders in today’s educational environment are expected to be fiscal managers, human resource specialists, behavioral experts, marketers, human motivators, and experts at community involvement and communications (Engels et al., 2008).
Other external factors also add complexity to the role:
- Decentralization (Matthews et al., 2008)
- Increasing state and federal accountability systems (Phillips and Sen, 2011)
- Responsibility for implementing initiatives from the district level that they may not agree with (Burens, 2015)
Given these changing role dynamics and the wide range of expectations placed on school leaders, the well-being and mental health of principals is being threatened (Riley and Langan-Fox, 2013; Riley, 2015a, 2015b).
But despite the unequivocal consensus that the mental health and well-being of school leaders is essential, the topic has been little researched (Beausaert, Froehlich, Devos, and Riley, 2016).
Key Findings of NASSP Principal Survey
- 85% of principals report frequent job-related stress compared to only 35% of the general working population.
- 48% of principals report significant job-related burnout compared to 44% of the general working population.
- Principals are 39% more likely to report depression-related symptoms compared to the general working population.
- 19% of principals report they are not coping well with stress compared to 12% of the general working population.
- 67% of principals report having adequate resilience compared to 80% of the general working population.
- Female principals were more likely to report job-related stress and burnout than male principals.
Given these high levels of stress, burnout, and potential depression, it’s not surprising that the NASSP survey found that 38% of principals are considering leaving the profession and 28% are looking to leave as soon as possible.
The impact of nearly 4 out of every 10 school leaders walking off the job would have significant impacts on schools, teachers, and students.
Indeed, a 2021 study by Bluestein and Goldschmidt found that principals account for a significant amount of the difference in school improvement efforts — accounting for 40% of the variance.
This study also found that principal impacts on student achievement increased over time:
- A first-year principal only had 0.04 effect size.
- By year three, there was a 0.21 effect size (effect size equals the amount of standard deviation increase in achievement).
Therefore, if schools are losing principals at a significant rate and replacing them with new principals, student improvement will be diminished.
As noted, our principals are suffering from significant stress, which is impacting their mental health, as noted by the much higher rate of depression symptoms than the general population.
When examining the main sources of stress for school leaders, the NASSP survey found the second leading cause of stress was “supporting teachers’ and staff’s mental health and well-being.”
It’s ironic to consider that a school leader may be struggling with burnout and mental health concerns, yet they are expected to provide mental health and wellness support to their staff and also be a source of strength.
Finally, let’s not forget our district-level leaders.
A 2016 study of the stress and mental health of school superintendents found they too are under significant stress, and it’s impacting their physical and mental wellness as well.
The study found that the illnesses reported by the largest percentages of superintendents included:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic headaches
All of the above were attributed by superintendents to high levels of stress.
In early 2022, EAB released the survey “2022 Voice of the Superintendent.”
Their overall conclusions about the state of the superintendency confirms that our district leaders are feeling the stress and burnout and that there could be a mass exodus in the next few years, which could have dire impacts on our schools:
“The greatest exodus of leadership at the district level that we have seen in this country looks likely to continue…many have reached their breaking point. Around half of our survey respondents report considering or actively planning to leave their role within the next two to three years. The departure of veteran leaders (6+ years of experience) is expected, with 36 percent planning to retire within two to three years and another 14 percent who will see how this year goes before deciding. More concerning is the potential exodus of newer superintendents (5 years experience or less), with 23 percent either seeing how this year goes or actively looking for other work.”
Superintendents, like school leaders, are focused on the many needs of others (e.g., teachers, staff and students).
Because of this, they often fail to take care of their own mental and physical wellness.
How Can Districts Support the Mental Health of Principals and Superintendents?
Districts need to change the culture around school and district leadership as it relates to mental fitness and health.
Principals and superintendents are not invincible, and they need to be coached that they are not immune to stress and the physical and mental toll it can exact.
Educational leaders must be given permission to take care of themselves. The Rand study recommends that districts offer mental health and well-being supports and then ensure that principals are directly invited to participate.
Districts that do not offer mental health or well-being support must consider doing so.
The support must be viewed on a continuum of services to meet the diverse needs of staff. Districts must approach wellness as a long-term commitment and not view stress and burnout as a superficial or short-term problem.
The majority of districts in the U.S. offer employee assistance programs (EAP), but these services are highly reactive, and people often access them only when they are in serious distress.
There also is additional stress added to the person to try to fit into their schedule a remote counseling or therapy session — not to mention the social stigma many feel about receiving mental health services.
Districts must take a more preventative approach and help school leaders develop the behavioral and cognitive skills to effectively manage stress and burnout before it adversely impacts their mental health and day-to-day functioning.
One way to consider this preventative approach is to consider the notion of mental fitness.
Mental fitness is analogous to physical fitness in that everyone can benefit from a regimen of activities that promote physical fitness (i.e., exercise, sleep, nutrition).
The same can be said of mental fitness.
People can learn cognitive and behavioral skills that will give them the ability to better manage stress as it happens in their life. The notion is “why wait?” until you are in distress to manage the stress.
Instead, learn how to cope with it when you are emotionally and mentally strong, which will reduce the likelihood of more serious concerns in the future.
Districts must also address barriers to access that are prevalent in EAPs, such as long wait times for counseling or therapy sessions due to a shortage of licensed therapists.
In rural settings, it may all but impossible to access mental health services, and long wait times are also common in suburban and urban settings as the overall infrastructure for mental health is lacking in the U.S.
Many districts today are offering “mindfulness and relaxation” or meditation tools for their employees, but these methods do not provide the extensive cognitive and behavioral skills needed to cope effectively with stress and burnout.
Despite the apparent efficacy of mindfulness on improving some level of stress and burnout, the addition of “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Methods” (CBT) to complement these interventions may prove to be even more impactful.
CBT interventions have promise for supporting teachers in stressful occupational conditions and reducing their burnout (Ghasemi, Herman, & Reinke, 2022).
Lloyd, Bond, & Flaxman (2013) found in a randomized controlled trial that cognitive behavior therapy significantly reduced emotional exhaustion and burnout in teachers.
Digital Stress and Burnout Reduction Applications
Recently, there have been a number of online digital tools to help people manage mental health concerns.
In a 2021 meta-analysis, (Lou, et. al.) demonstrated that online CBT was more effective than face-to-face CBT at reducing depression symptom severity.
There were no significant differences between the two interventions on participant satisfaction. Therefore, districts should consider digital mental health platforms as a highly effective tool to offer to their educators.
However, most are not finely tuned to the educational environment and the special needs of educators.
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