Leadership Article - 'Principal Burnout - Principal Barometer 2021'

Burnout among principals has become a chronic problem – general upper secondary schools the worst, with regional differences.

There has been a permanent and significant increase in the work load of Finnish principals, resulting in stress and exhaustion. Current leadership structures are incapable of providing sustainable solutions for today's challenges, states Antti Ikonen, the chair of Sure Fire, the Association of Finnish Principals.

– This may affect equality in education and the future of education. There should be no more delays for reforming the leadership system in education. The reform has been included in the current Government programme and it should be implemented, calls Ikonen.

The long coronavirus era, which is still ongoing, has left a heavy mark on schools, learning, and the well-being of principals. Much of the overall responsibility for continuing education during the crisis has been borne by the principals, whose level of exhaustion grew deeper and more persistent during the last year. At the same time, principals' enthusiasm with their work plummeted from last year.

All this was revealed by the Principal Barometer 2021, a study led by Academy Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro and Professor Minna Huotilainen from the University of Helsinki as well as Professor Philip Riley from Australia. The results from this year's study were also compared to those from the barometers of two earlier years. The dataset was collected in late spring 2021.

– In spring, 20 per cent of principals were burnt-out, 45 per cent were at risk of a burnout, and 35 per cent were inspired. The situation has become persistent, as the number of burnt-out principals and those at risk of a burnout has been increasing since the pre-pandemic spring of 2019. In 2020,
17 per cent were experiencing moderate to severe exhaustion; this year, this group had grown to 26 per cent, says Academy Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro.

According to Salmela-Aro, more than half of the burnout is explained by the demanding nature of the work. There has been an increase in the work load of principals, cognitive and emotional demands, conflicts in reconciliating work and family, and Covid stress.

– Enthusiasm with one's work, on the other hand, is explained by work-related resources such as possibilities to influence and develop the work, received feedback, and sense of community. The ability to modify one's work is a crucial psychological factor that can increase coping at work and being inspired by work, recounts Salmela-Aro.

Most exhaustion found among general upper secondary school principals

Some aspects of the results may even pose a threat to equality in education. There are differences between educational levels: principals of general upper secondary schools showed a higher level of exhaustion. This may be due to many reforms carried out at this level lately – a new core curriculum, increasing the weight of matriculation examination, extending the compulsory education – as well as hybrid teaching and other Covid arrangements.

In addition, there are regional differences: in spring, the darkest places on the principals' exhaustion map were Lapland, Central Ostrobothnia and Central Finland.

Similarly, Professor Minna Huotilainen's physiological measurements on principals showed poorer results than a year ago: a principal's workday contains less relaxed time and more stressful time. On average, there was over 15 hours of stressful time per day, and less than four hours of relaxed time.

– These symptoms have become chronic as well. The quality of sleep among principals has deteriorated, although the length of sleep has remained the same, about seven and a half hours, says Huotilainen.

Urgent to fix the situation

According to Chair Antti Ikonen, the development of chronic stress and exhaustion among principals is bad news for all Finns.

– The lack of leadership resources can, at its worst, jeopardise the functioning of the entire school community. The well-being of each member of the community is intertwined. The long pandemic has deteriorated the well-being of students, educational staff, and principals. It is challenging to address the lack of well-being caused by Covid at a time when everyone's resources are limited, says Ikonen.

According to Ikonen, the fact that exhaustion among principals has remained unchanged or become worse since spring 2019 is a sign of insufficient commitment by some education providers to fix the issue. Management and training are also in need of improvement.

– This problem affects more people than just the principals; they should not be left to cope alone. Another reason the matter should be fixed urgently is that the number of large schools is growing along with shrinking age groups, promising similar or higher work load on principals in the future.

According to Ikonen, a principal's work has transformed from administrative work towards leadership and support of the entire school community. However, the principals' training and competence development system gives insufficient resources for this.

– Reforming the leadership system is included in our current Government programme, and should be implemented as soon as possible.