The June release of findings from a Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) principal health and wellbeing report, and the Australian Principals’ Occupational Health and Wellbeing survey released earlier in March, have triggered a new wave of media criticism about our overworked and under-resourced public education workforce. Headlines included phrases such as ‘huge pressures’, ‘crisis point’ and ‘no improvement’ – and referred to the Victorian Department of Education’s “failure” to effectively protect the health and wellbeing of school leaders.
Behind the headlines, research findings show that principals are grappling with unmanageable workloads, worsening student mental health, and intensifying staff shortages. Teachers are not faring much differently. There are clear parallels between school principals’ responses and the insights about teacher health and wellbeing reported in two recent large-scale Australia-wide teacher surveys.
The first study, a Black Dog Institute survey of over 4,000 teachers released in February this year, found that teachers experience substantially higher levels of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues compared to the general population. A large majority (70%) report having unmanageable workloads, and their intentions to leave the profession within the next 12 months are at an all-time high (47%, up 14% from 2021).
The AEU’s health and wellbeing policy highlights the crucial need for governments to address the major stressors faced by our members.
Challenges to teachers’ health and wellbeing
The second study, a Monash University survey of almost 5,500 teachers released in October 2022, found a significant drop in teachers’ satisfaction with their jobs when compared to 2019 (from 66% to 46%). Yet again, the core issue challenging teacher health and wellbeing included excessive workloads. They also reported issues with feeling unsafe in the workplace, meeting complex student needs, and an overloaded curriculum.
Beyond the few studies described above, health and wellbeing studies more broadly, whether focused on teachers or school leaders, highlight common, long-standing issues faced by school employees that have only been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The studies point to reduced workloads, positive relationships with colleagues and students, and increased respect and recognition as key ways to counter the problems. Ultimately, this would also help to address workforce shortages.
These health and wellbeing studies also reveal a gaping hole in the evidence base about the public education workforce. Almost nothing is known or reported about the health and wellbeing of Australia’s education support workers. What is absent – and pressingly needed – are the systemic supports and comprehensive data collection that specifically targets the needs of this group.
Whilst governments have rightly been investing large amounts of funding toward improving student health and wellbeing, there is also a clearly demonstrated need to directly and effectively tackle the key stressors faced by school staff. Systemic changes and more funding are crucial, rather than patch-up or piecemeal policy efforts that continually fail to address the core of the problem.
AEU policy highlights need for greater support
To support our members’ wellbeing under increasingly challenging conditions, the Victorian AEU has released a new policy on school workforce safety, health, welfare and wellbeing. Endorsed by AEU’s Victorian Branch Council in June, the policy outlines the AEU’s position on what is needed to ensure members work in a profession, in workplaces and in a public education system that supports them properly in their work, without compromises to their safety, health, welfare, or wellbeing.
The policy lays out a breadth of topics and positions that demonstrate the complex, multi-faceted nature of school employee safety, health, welfare and wellbeing. It highlights the crucial need for governments to address the significant stressors school employees face and to prioritise the core activities that allow them to experience the joys and rewards of their important work. School staff, irrespective of their role or employment type, must be placed at the centre of any decisions that can affect their safety, health, welfare and wellbeing.
The studies mentioned in this article are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth of evidence about the health and wellbeing issues faced by school employees. The AEU’s new policy demonstrates the gap between the current situation and what the ideal system could and should look like.
Wherever there is a gap between the actual and the ideal, there are great opportunities to effect positive change. What’s currently missing, as highlighted by the VAGO report on principal health and wellbeing, are initiatives to solve the core problems, particularly through a reduction in workloads. AEU Victoria’s Ten-Year Plan for Staffing in Public Education says it best: “There is no more important time than now for investment in the workforce, which is, in turn, a direct investment in students.”