School Leadership Action: Work-related Pressure and Subjective Strain
There is broad scientific evidence for the importance of school leadership for school quality and improvement (Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris & Hopkins, 2007; Huber & Muijs, 2010). As the expectations of society have changed and school systems have been geared towards (more) decentralization and at the same time more centralization (with new public management being more and more consequently implemented), school leaders are confronted with a wider range of tasks, as well as more complex tasks (Huber. 2010, 2011). However, there is a lack of studies on the job strain of school leaders on an international level, but particularly in the German speaking countries (Borg & Riding, 1993; Huber, 2011, 2013). Only few studies have been conducted on job satisfaction, job strain and emotional exhaustion of school leaders (Brock & Grady, 2002; Dadaczynski, 2012).
The school leadership study 2012 of the German speaking countries was conducted in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It aimed to gain empirical insights into the work setting and job experiences of school leaders in these countries, specifically preferred and straining activities (leadership practices) as well as important predictors of health like job satisfaction, general job strain and emotional exhaustion. In this paper we focused on the highly and little strained school leaders. The research questions were:
- How do school leaders with critical values on emotional exhaustion differ in their handlings with strains and resources from school leaders with low values on emotional exhaustion?
- What kind of similarities can be found in the personal coping strategies of school leaders?
For this research we operationalized health as being critically affected by job satisfaction, general job strain and emotional exhaustion as well as specific strains (stemming from specific leadership practices). The first operationalization was served by the theoretical framework of the Böhm-Kasper model of strain in schools (Böhm-Kasper, 2004). According to him, strains relate to different conditions. He divides those conditions into cross-situational (or trans-situational) and situational ones. Böhm-Kasper sees these conditions in an interdependent relation. This model is rooted in the strain/stress-models of occupational science (for ex. Rudow, 1990) as well as transactional models of coping and stress (cp. Böhm-Kasper, Bos, Jaeckel & Weishaupt, 2000). The afore-mentioned conditions, which can influence strain, can either be regarded as strains or as resources. This means that the conditions can either correlate positively or negatively with the experienced strain. Finally, Böhm-Kasper defines strain as the effect of the different conditions on school leaders.
Huber’s model of school leadership practices (2010, 2013) was used as a foundation to systematically identify and classify school leadership activities. Huber’s model categorizes a plethora of school leadership activities along five categories: instruction, staff issues, administration, quality management and cooperation. The model served as frame of reference to categorize activities of school leaders.
The overall study consisted of a mixed-methods, cross-sectional approach. Elements from the qualitative research phase informed the research focus for the quantitative research phase that followed in an exploratory way. The quantitative phases informed the following qualitative phases in an explanative way. The study was conducted in several phases:
- An exploratory study comprising of 20 individual interviews in Germany with school leaders of all school types was conducted to identify relevant factors of strain that were to be inquired in the quantitative online-survey.
- A quantitative, standardized online-survey was distributed to school leaders. It focused on the specific preferences and strains in leadership practices in connection with individual factors (personality and occupational biography) and institutional factors (school related work setting) predicting job satisfaction, general job strain and emotional exhaustion.
- In a third step, the daily professional practices and activities of school leaders were recorded via an end-of-day-log covering three work weeks distributed across one school year (in which the participants logged their daily activities during the evening, indicating what they had done, when, with whom, for how long and where).
- In a fourth step, interviews were conducted with school leaders focusing on the one hand on areas of pressure and tension in school leadership practice, which may lead to strong stress experiences and on the other hand on the interrelations of stress patterns of highly strained school leaders.
- In a fifth step, more qualitative interviews were conducted with the focus on how challenging staff constellations, dysfunctional social processes and strained teachers relate to the strain of school leaders.
For this paper, we used the qualitative data from the fourth and fifth step. All the interviews were conducted in the manner of the problem centered interview according to Witzel (2000). The data has been analyzed with a qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2002).
Altogether 5394 school leaders participated in the study (which represents a response rate of 49%). The sample consisted of 3764 school leaders from Germany, 741 from Austria and 889 from Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The school leaders were between 25 and 66 years old (M= 52.45; SD=7.75). For the qualitative interviews eight highly stressed school leaders from Germany, five highly stressed and five little stressed school leaders from Switzerland have been interrogated.
The findings indicate that school leaders who are highly emotionally exhausted see social conflicts as bigger strains than their colleagues who are little emotionally exhausted. Example of social conflicts are resistance from staff or missing cooperation within the school. Highly emotionally strained school leaders talk more about social conflicts with different partners of interaction than little emotionally strained school leaders. Little emotionally stressed school leaders report a higher level of support by the faculty stuff than highly emotionally stressed school leaders. In many cases, these school leaders see the cooperation with staff as well as the cooperation with the authorities as highly straining. Many of the school leaders reported multiple strains which and role conflicts and a feeling of uncertainty regarding how to react properly, especially in conflict situations. The multitude of roles – being in charge of the teachers but also of their students and being a contact person for parents as well as the authorities – is also straining.
Besides the conflict experience there is also a difference in stress caused by a higher work time during weeks and a higher subjective rating of this time caused stress. Highly emotionally stressed school leaders have also more activities do to in the field of organization and administration, which they see as highly stressful. Organization and administration is the least liked activity field and the most straining in all the school leaders activities. The analysis of the interviews indicates that small and unplanned activities, which can interrupt a whole work flow, are seen as highly straining for many school leaders.
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