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Background: More than ever before, school principals are dealing with stress and burnout, resulting from increasing role demands and decreasing decision latitude and autonomy. Following the Demand–Support–Constraints model, reasons for stress and burnout can be found in the lack of social support in the environment. Purpose: This longitudinal study investigates whether changes in social support from colleagues, supervisors and/or the broader community affect levels of principal stress and burnout. Sample: Approximately 26% of Australia’s school principals took part (N = 3572): primary (n = 2660) and secondary (n = 912) spread across all Australian states and territories. Age ranged between 46 and 55 years, and mean leadership experience was 12 years. Design and methods: Since stress and burnout are psychological phenomena that develop over time, a longitudinal approach was adopted. Data were collected across four waves, spread over four years, from 2011 to 2014. Results: It was found that social support predicts decreased stress and in turn burnout in school principals, however differences were found according to the type of social support. The data provide strong evidence for a positive effect of stress on burnout (e.g. the more stress at time 2, the more burnout in principals at time 3) and partial support for indirect negative effects of social support on burnout (e.g. the more support from colleagues at time 2, the less burnout in principals at time 3). However, we also found two instances of positive effects of social support from the broader community on burnout. This suggests that the more support principals receive from the broader community, the more likely they are to show burnout symptoms. This might be explained as the ‘the downside of empathy’, where principals who are strongly supported by their community might also feel more connected to that community. When their community is struggling, they are probably struggling as well. Conclusions: The findings highlight the positive impact the wider school community can play in providing supplementary professional support to the principal. Unbundling or repackaging the job responsibilities with an administrative team that shares the leadership of the school, could be part of the solution.

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access


© 2016 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.