Researcher Associate Professor Phil Riley says initial results from the annual Health and Wellbeing Survey have shown so far that 37 per cent (or 120 of 321 principals and senior school leaders) were displaying significant degrees of distress through raising a “red-flag” in answering questions in the survey.
This group are in need of urgent attention, Riley said.
In the red-flag system, a participant is sent an automatic email urging them to seek help and links about where to do so.
Red flags are generated in three ways - either the participant has indicated they are thinking of self-harming, they have a high combined score across categories or a series of quality of life indicators that are concerning.
Riley said that senior leaders in schools need help, and the education system needs a complete re-design and creative solutions such as job-sharing.
The survey also revealed that the problem is getting worse; in 2016, the final red flag percentage was 20 per cent.
The survey is also being done in Australia and Ireland, where results have been similar, indicating that there is something wrong with the role, not the person, and that it is a systemic problem, Riley said.
The New Zealand survey is still open with 174 partially completed surveys, so numbers were not yet final, he said.
NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart said she was deeply concerned about principals, senior leaders and their wellbeing and that it needed to be acted on immediately as part of the current collective agreement negotiations.
“We have made long lists of recommendations, but so far nothing has changed much, in fact it has become worse as this shows," she said.
Stuart said some principals were not filling out the survey, telling her that they are waiting to be less busy or feeling better so that it looks less negative.
The survey is in its third year and is important for highlighting trends and also giving individual feedback on health and wellbeing.
This year’s report is also being supported by the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF), NZ Maori Principals - Te Akatea, and NZ School Trustees’ Association (NZSTA).
The Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) are running a concurrent survey with secondary principals.
NZPF President Whetu Cormick said the trends highlighted in the survey were of “grave concern” to the Federation, and the teacher shortage was adding to stress and workload for principals.
“Teacher supply issues are directly impacting principals’ ability to lead learning and manage the day-to-day operation of their schools.
“The challenges are everywhere.
"I’ve recently heard from four Invercargill principals, who have been teaching fulltime in the classroom for the past eight weeks. You can’t lead the teaching and learning when you’re in the classroom fulltime.”
NZSTA president Lorraine Kerr said the extent of principals' distress was disturbing.
"Although it comes as no surprise for boards of trustees generally that school principals are often under stress, and that this does impact on their health and general wellbeing, many will be aware of it more as an issue they are trying to resolve in their own school rather than a system-level failure," she said.
Kerr added the results reinforced issues around workload, resourcing and situational issues that contribute to the pressure on principals, and said NZSTA had been working with principals' groups, teacher unions and the Ministry on strategies to resolve these.
While some issues are being addressed in the context of collective bargaining, she said she believes that the underlying causes are systemic and also need to be addressed in the current Tomorrow’s Schools review.
Readers seeking support and information can contact:
The Mental Health Foundation 09 623 4812
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline 0800 111 757
Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865