About the project

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Invisible labour: School principals’ emotional labour in volatile times

About the project


Emotional labour is a crucial aspect of principals’ work, but there is still a lot we don't know about it.

What is emotional labour?

Emotional labour refers to the task of managing one’s emotions and that of others.

What we do know is that it demands a range of ‘invisible’ skills, such as managing competing demands between students, teachers, parents, the broader education system and community. It demands the emotional capacity to switch seamlessly between stakeholder interactions (teachers, students etc), whilst simultaneously impression managing.

One principal describes it as being like a duck, it looks like you’re gliding seamlessly along the water, but underneath your feet are working as hard as possible.

When it comes to this form of labour, the demands on principals  can impact their health and wellbeing (e.g., chronic stress, feelings of burn out and lowered job satisfaction levels). Much of this is documented in the annual longitudinal study of principal occupational health, safety and wellbeing.

What is different about this study?

  1. Firstly, we are focusing on government school principals only. This is because the increasing fragmentation of society is demanding new relational skills for principals, particularly in government school contexts where students of widely diverse backgrounds are gathered. It is demanding trauma-informed leadership, community building and the emotional management capacities to connect across diverse demographics in holistic and socially just ways.
  2. Secondly, our study has an explicit activist aim. We want to work with unions, principal associations, education departments, parents and school council groups to bring about real change, beyond documenting what is happening in schools (crucial though that is). So how can these aspects of government school principals’ jobs be captured in ways that educate the public, the media and policy makers? How can we work collectively to draw attention to the complexity of government principals’ work and bring about the necessary change? That brings us to the third point of difference about our research.
  3. Thirdly, the principal survey we’re beginning with is not your typical survey. We want to collect principals’ stories about the invisible but crucial relational aspects of their work - their emotional labour. We are asking them to share at least one story about a critical incident that they have experienced in their work as a principal. We believe these stories would allow us to capture the extent and diversity of this invisible work, and expand public understandings about the complex nature of the principal’s role.

    We are asking principals to choose to share a story that is comfortable for them. They are not expected to share anything that would cause significant distress. The principals' survey will be open for the life of the project.

    We will then curate some of the most compelling stories, anonymise them so people and schools can’t be identified, and make them accessible on this website for the duration of the study. The idea is to build a public and media conversation that raises awareness of principals’ work and the job they do. Most importantly, we want it to start an urgent conversation about what needs to change and how.


In 2023, we kick off with the principals' survey which will remain open for the duration of the project.

In 2024, we will conduct case studies of government schools in Victoria and NSW to capture in more detail these aspects of emotional labour.

In 2024-25, we will run stakeholder industry forums – including with teacher unions – to share our initial findings and gain feedback. Part of these forums will include sharing a draft guiding framework, including rich, evidence-informed cases and testimonials that are made publicly available on our website.

Building on our previous work

The "Principals emotional labour in volatile times" study builds on our previous work which examined the crucial role that schools and school leaders can play in building more socially cohesive school communities. We specifically focused on the role of school leaders in bringing together communities at risk of fragmentation. Using the lens of ‘challenging conversations’, we mapped the key social issues that schools and their leadership teams were grappling with.

Our goal was to map conversations arising from these challenging social issues and the role that such conversations can play through early intervention to prevent disharmonies, exclusion and anti-social behaviours, particularly with vulnerable children/youth.

See our bibliography here.