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School principals stressed and exhausted during corona spring

Two-thirds of Finnish school principals say they were close to burnout last spring.

Koululaiset aloittamassa koulupäivää Kajaanin keskuskoulun pihassa.
Responsibility for special arrangements at schools during the spring's crisis fell on the principals. Image: Antti Tauriainen / Yle

A new survey of the health and well-being of primary and secondary school principals in Finland has found that the vast majority were severely impacted by the coronavirus crisis conditions of this past spring.

Two-thirds of the respondents to the survey said that they were exhausted, or at risk of exhaustion, in late spring. Only about one in three said that they had been able to maintain enthusiasm for their work at that time.

This was a significant change from the findings of a similar study carried out in the spring of 2019.

"Before the coronavirus crisis, 55 percent of principals belonged to the group of those feeling a sense of enthusiasm, after the corona spring only 36 percent. The decline is about a quarter. That is quite considerable," Katariina Salmela-Aro, Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, said.

"Similarly, the number of those who were exhausted has risen dramatically. A year ago, 45 percent of principals were exhausted or at risk of exhaustion, now that was 64 percent," Salmela-Aro pointed out.

The practical responsibility for keeping educational facilities functioning under crisis conditions last spring fell largely on school principals. According to Salmela-Aro, they were particularly stressed by concerns about how well their teachers could cope with the situation.

"Distance teaching pushed the resources of principals, teachers, students and parents to the limit, burning the candle at both ends. This is strongly reflected in the research results," she said.

Cause for concern

Antti Ikonen, who chairs the national association of Finnish principals Suomen Rehtorit, said that the first health and well-being survey in 2019 showed that the resilience of principals was strong. These new findings he sees as worrying.

"The number of people who were exhausted or at risk of exhaustion is a cause for concern. The decline in principals' enthusiasm may be even more worrying than the increase in exhaustion, since enthusiasm for the job is one of the most important tools in school development," Ikonen stated.

Ikonen believes that many principals last spring felt that they were unable to give their teaching staff enough support. Concerns about students learning progress during the crisis have also weighed heavily on principals.

According to the study, principals who rate their own digital skills as weak are at the highest risk of exhaustion.

"The training of principals is in its infancy in Finland. These results show that it is necessary to invest in it. The days of solo leadership are over. Now we need real shared leadership," Ikonen emphasised.

Physical effects

This survey looked not only at feelings and attitudes, but also measured the physiological effects of the school workplace stresses caused by the epidemic during the spring.

The questionnaire was sent to the principals of all elementary and secondary schools in the country last April with responses collected up through June. Nearly 650 school heads, or 54 percent of all principals, responded to the survey.

Among the information gathered was data on heart rates, sleep patterns, and exercise, in order to establish a picture of overall workload and work-related stress.

The study found that those who were exhausted or at risk of exhaustion slept more poorly than their colleagues and got less exercise both during the working day and during leisure time.

"The worst night of the study period seemed to be the night before the end of term school assembly. There seems to be quite a lot on the shoulders of the principals," said Professor Minna Huotilainen, a specialist in cognitive science at the University of Helsinki.

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