Deal with Burnout…

High stress levels have become fairly synonymous with our role, with little wonder, as the pace of change and the relentless onslaught of initiatives and legislation increases our workload and the complexity of our role without check it seems. No one appears to be repsonsible for a duty of care to principal teachers and our research shows that almost 90% of principals are suffering from mental and physical symptoms of stress. 

NPF Research 2018

NPF Research 2018

NPF Research 2019

The cause of burnout in our role is evident…

NPF Research 2018

The first thing to highlight here is that we are not medical practitioners or counsellors, we are principals like you, well versed in stress and its detriment to our health and wellbeing. We urge anyone suffering from stress or burnout symptoms to consult your GP and seek support. 

The rest of the information here comes from the experiences and hindsight of principals like you. 

Stress is a deadly thing. The cumulative affect of persistent stress can wreck havoc on mental and physical health and you should engage in regular ‘check ins’ with yourself and loved ones to monitor your stress levels and act accordingly. 

There are subtle differences between Stress and Burnout, but one can quickly and insidiously become the other if we sacrifice self care in our lives. There is no role clarity in this position – indeed the role of principal has not been reviewed or defined in any meaningful way since 1973! So it is a case of ‘how long is a piece of rope?’ – there is no end to the list of to dos, demands, responsibilties, paperwork, interruptions.

We must carefully draw these lines ourselves – and they MUST BEGIN WITH A SELF CARE PLAN. We must respect ourselves, our time and our needs. Hindsight has taught many of us that it is best to begin as you mean to go on – many of us hit the ground running and  poured our hearts and souls into our position thinking we would reach a point where work would become more sustainable and manageable. This is a fallacy. This is not attainable – you are just setting a high bar for yourself that cannot be maintained in the longer term. You are also inadvertently teaching others to disrespect your time and needs by setting this example for them. 

It is never too late to reset. If you are experiencing high and persistent stress levels, you are dancing with burnout and you must pause for a moment. You must step off the wheel momentarily, before you are forced to. 


They will not dissapate by magic or go away without change. 

Self care is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. You must take time to regularly take stock of where you are at and adjust to meet your own needs first and foremost. If you find yourself in dicey waters, pause and take stock. 

  • Speak with family and trusted friends
  • Speak with your GP
  • TAKE SOME TIME – whatever you need!
  • Make a plan
  • Prioritise rest and health
  • Rediscover your joy, your interests, you without the principalship – these are the things to safeguard going forward
  • Before you return to your role, prepare delegation in advance and communicate your boundaries clearly and without apology
  • Have a cut off point in the day where work is a no go zone – if you were gone someone else would have to deal with it. It will be there to pick up again in the morning.
  • Put safeguards in place to seperate work and home life – be careful with accessing emails etc on your phone, be strict with your avaibability to others for work related matters. Do not let your better nature be taken for granted or advantage of
  • Limit your tolerance for unprofessional behaviour and vexatious complaints.Address these issues professionally and under advisement if necessary, but do not let it undermine your happiness and self-worth. Personal attacks and criticisms are commonplace in our role but that doe not make it acceptable or deserving of so much air time or head space. You set these limits – you are your own protector in this regard
  • You may need to work on how you think and change your thought process somewhat to recover from burnout or pull yourself back from the edge…

Taking some time to analyse your cognitive process can result in simple but life affriming changes that literally transform how you think and react to situations. Once you realise this you can never unknow it, you will think differently, which will lead to different feelings, more measured reactions, and this will lead to behavioural changes which ultimately serve you better. 

You worked so hard to achieve this position. As cold as this sounds, there is no one coming to save you in the education sector. You have this yourself. If you lose sight of what is important because you are drowning in the tidal waves of admin and juggling, STEP AWAY MOMENTARILY, RECONNECT WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES, FIND YOUR EQUILIBRIUM AND BREATHE. It is possible, there is a better way for you. Believe in yourself and practice self-care. Go gently and patiently. Find your mojo again and set the pace – your pace – giving the best of you NOT whats left of you! Choose professional colleagues and friends carefully – you need to be with positive and realistic people who support you and life in general – avoid leeches and energy vampires. They are out there and cause immense damage over time. 

Remember that you make a difference in the world. Remember the positives to this role, the privilege to lead, to shape, to support. But never loose sight of yourself in the midst of it again! Once burned! 

Best wishes to all – from some who bear the scars but with a smile now!


Last updated byAngela Dunne on 20 May 2020
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