Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Bad Sleep Is a Problem for Principals. Here’s What to Do About It

Our new study on the connection between stress and sleep among school leaders
By Eleanor Su-Keene, David E. DeMatthews & Alex Keene — November 28, 2023 5 min read
Stylized illustration of an alarm clock over a background which is split in half, with one half being nighttime and one half being daytime.
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The adage “no rest for the weary” seems quite timely as principals are battling to the upcoming holiday break amid declining test scores and teacher shortages. Yet, a healthy sleep routine for principals has never been more important given these challenges and the never-ending stress and uncertainty associated with school leadership.

As education researchers, we are concerned that many principals are burning out on the job from the stress and demands associated with their daily workload. Our recent study of principal sleep habits and stress has only added to our concerns. Stress can cause principals to prematurely exit their campus amid important improvement efforts and diminish their overall ability to support teachers and school personnel in meeting the diverse academic, social, and emotional needs of each student.

Recent surveys have highlighted that many principals experience high levels of stress on the job, while the nation is seeing a surge in principals reporting their intention to quit, accompanied by a modest increase in principal turnover. Both survey and laboratory-based studies reveal a strong interrelationship between stress and sleep, where stress leads to poorer quality sleep and reduced sleep duration.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

Further, sleep loss is associated with reduced cognitive functioning, workplace performance, and happiness, as well as many negative health outcomes. Sleep may not be a magic bullet solution to lowering levels of stress or retaining principals, but improving sleep can have personal and professional benefits.

The average healthy adult requires about 7-8 hours of sleep each evening, though this can vary among individuals. Good sleep quality, however, is more than the duration; it encompasses time taken to fall asleep and wakefulness throughout the evening. As a person sleeps, they cycle through sleep stages essential for maintaining brain health, immune function, and other physiological processes. While Americans are widely known to compensate for sleep loss during the work week on the weekends, a process known as “social jet lag,” this is not sufficient to make up for all the weekday effects on the body’s physiology.

Researchers have consistently found that poor sleep can have serious cognitive and physiological effects, and these can hinder individuals’ ability to effectively do their job. In a review of sleep-disruption studies, researchers found that losing just one or two nights of adequate sleep can impair an individual’s cognition, memory, and social performance.

Individuals with poor sleep have a more difficult time regulating stress and are more susceptible to mood disorders, emotional distress, and decreased quality of life. Over time, chronic sleep loss has been associated with numerous ailments and is one of the strongest predictors of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and heart disease. This has caused experts to refer to chronic insomnia as an epidemic, and perhaps nowhere is this more of a factor than in stressful leadership positions.

Over the past year, we piloted a study with new principals in Texas examining sleep, stress, and leadership efficacy. Using sleep monitors, we tracked principals’ sleep attributes such as sleep efficiency, total sleep time, and nighttime awakenings, along with perceptions of stress and efficacy through surveys.

We found that principals slept within the normal range of hours; however, they experienced an average of 15 awakenings per night when the normal range is 2-6 awakenings/night for most adults. Some of these awakenings were for more than two hours before principals returned to sleep. When interviewed about these disruptions, principals described feeling worried and anxious, which impeded their ability to fall back asleep.

In addition, the study raised concerns about principals’ stress and the impact on their mental health. Principals reported moderate to high levels of anxiety and depression. Given that mental health is an important factor for good sleep, we worry that the stresses experienced by principals are creating conditions for poor sleep, which can exacerbate poor mental and physiological health.

We recognize that our pilot study has limitations, which is why we are moving forward with an expanded study to further examine the relationship between stress and sleep among principals. However, we are concerned enough to share our findings and highlight some important sleep strategies and practices principals and other educators should consider.

Principals need sleep to make it through the rest of the school year, and it should be incumbent upon them and their supervisors to create conditions that support healthy lives. Coupled with other healthy living strategies, we hope that every principal can have a year filled with energy and joy knowing their work matters. We are not suggesting educators can sleep their way out of systemic educational issues, but rather, we believe that managing stress can improve sleep and in turn enhance well-being and feeling efficacious at work.

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