Burnout is deadly

Kerri Carr

Educationists have 120 per cent more difficulty getting a good night's sleep compared to others

Working long hours is dangerous for your health, Associate Professor Dr Philip Riley warned teachers at Federation’s recent Principals’ Conference.

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2016 revealed that on average, 55 per cent of principals are working more than 50 hours a week, and 27 per cent are working more than 60 hours a week.

Working more than 10 hours a day leads to a 60 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the US health department, Dr Riley said. “Sometimes the first symptom you experience with this is death — this is the 45 to 55-year-old who everybody thought was very active, fit and healthy who loved their job and suddenly one morning keels over with a heart attack. That massive heart attack was their first symptom of chronic stress.

“Death is really hard to come back from, I’m told, so take the warning now — do something about it.”

He mentioned that a recent Australian National University study shows an average worker’s mental health starts to suffer after working 39 hours per week — or 34 hours for women (to account for carer and domestic duties) and 47 hours for men.

Respondents to the Australian Principals Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2016 feel they are getting virtually no support from their respective departments of education. “On a 1-10 scale they don’t make one on average — that’s pretty appalling,” Dr Riley said.

He stated principals have been given accountability without adequate resources, not autonomy. “High job demands and low decision latitude means an early death. We know this from 50 years of epidemiological research, particularly with middle-ranking public servants: that fits the bill, exactly, for a school principal,” he warned.

The survey revealed the high demands on principals compared to the general population:

Job demands

Emotional demands

Emotional labour

50% higher

70% higher

70% higher

As well, principals don’t fare well compared to the general population on several health and wellbeing indicators:


Stress symptoms

Difficulty sleeping

Cognitive stress

Somatic symptoms

Depressive symptoms

60% higher

70% higher

120% higher

50% higher

30% higher

30% higher

“Let’s face it: when you’re tired you don’t make very good decisions, you’re very inefficient, you might as well stop,” he said.

“So the next time the Department asks you to do a new thing, say, 'sure, what don’t you want me to do so that I can do this?'. Just keep hammering that idea — ‘There are only so many hours in the day, there’s only so much I can do. If you want this, I’ll do that, but there’s something else that I won’t be able to do and if you don’t tell me which one to do, I’ll decide.’"

It’s really important to make changes to make your life a bit more manageable, Dr Riley said. “You only get one chance at this.”

“If you all change, the Department of Education has to change … This is a powerful thing if you all decided to take some control of it,” he said.

Realistic attitudes to burnout as a phenomenon are needed, Dr Riley said.

He described burnout as “the common cold” of teaching. “One in two teachers will experience a period of burnout during their career so it is not shameful or a failure to have to deal with it,” he said.

Burnout was everybody’s responsibility: individuals need to monitor how they are going and employers need to be aware they can cause it, he said.

Dr Riley told principals the number one strategy for being better than they are now was to sleep properly.

“Adults need a full eight hours’ sleep,” he said. “Only about 4 per cent of people don’t need the average hours of sleep. You can train yourself to function on a lot less sleep than you need but all you’re doing is building up a sleep debt, you are not actually coping and surviving and thriving.

“A sleep debt has long-term consequences that are not good for you,” he cautioned.

Dr Riley said when someone is sleep-deprived, physical functioning is only 50 per cent, emotional functioning is just 10 per cent and social function is 50 per cent. There is also a five-fold increase in risk of depression among the sleep-deprived.

When people are not sleeping enough, they give up on some rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, he said. “If you are giving up a big chunk of REM sleep every night you don’t get to consolidate your learning …. A person who is tired doesn’t have the same architecture [in their brain] to engage with the complex problems at the same level as a person who is not tired.”

Dr Riley suggests that if you are not sleeping well, set an alarm clock an hour before bed to remind you to turn off all screens.

“Light coming off the screen is saying to your brain, ‘time to be awake,’ not ‘it’s time to go to sleep’.”

Dr Riley recommends that poor sleepers:

  • go to bed at the same time each day
  • get up at the same time every day
  • exercise every day, but not within three hours of bedtime
  • don’t have caffeine after midday
  • don’t consume alcohol
  • don’t sleep during the day (but a 20-minute nap is okay)
  • eat only a small meal at night
  • deal with the issues of the day.

“Make notes before you go to bed and don’t let the ideas wake you up in the middle of the night,” he recommends.

“The good thing about problems is they wait for you. If you’ve had a rest from them, the solution might pop into your head or you can come back to it and deal with it fresh. If you take the problem home with you it will leave you exhausted all night.”


The importance of principals working together to make positive change in public education and resist irrelevant accountability processes was covered in the opening session of Federation’s Principals’ Conference in March.

New Zealand Educational Institute's immediate past president Louise Green outlined how professional voice was a critical component of quality public education.

She described how the New Zealand union went to parents and the media to build resistance to a government proposal for a funding model that would lead to the cutting of staff in schools.

As a consequence of its strength, the union earned representation at the design table as the New Zealand government considered the funding changes.

“Collectively we are stronger,” Ms Green said.

Federation President Maurie Mulheron outlined a long list of burdensome tasks that distract principals from teaching and learning.

Mr Mulheron said principals’ massive workload was affecting their health and urged them to talk to other principals and their staff to keep providing evidence to the union so the profession can respond collectively.

Conference workshops during the day included social media, students with disability, supporting and leading staff wellbeing and managing stressful situations, among other issues.

In the final session, Federation Vice President Denis Fitzgerald spoke about the work of principals and the new NSW Educational Standards Authority.

Click here to download PDF

Another article that may interest you

Educational leaders supported by CPL