| Olimpia Orządała |
Uncertainty or nervousness accompanied each of us during the coronavirus pandemic. We dealt with stress in various ways – sometimes better, sometimes worse. Some people used stimulants such as cigarettes or alcohol, some people gorged on sweets, and others enagaged in sports. Karina Leksy, PhD, from the Institute of Pedagogy of the University of Silesia in Katowice, leader of the project “Health literacy of school principals/vice-principals during the COVID-19 pandemic” financed by the competition “Postcovid Horizon” under the Research Excellence Initiative, together with her team studies the how school principals and vice-principals deal with stress during a pandemic. Questionnaire studies are conducted in dozens of countries around the world by over one hundred scientists as part of the international COVID-HL Network consortium.
What is health literacy?
In the literature on the subject, the concept of health literacy is defined as the knowledge, motivation and competences necessary to acquire, understand, evaluate and use health information. “This allows people to assess and make decisions connected with healthcare, disease prevention and health promotion in order to maintain or improve quality of life throughout their lives. This is why in the modern world, the level of human health literacy is of great importance, because today we are largely responsible for our own health” says Karina Leksy, PhD.
We acquire health awareness primarily in the process of socialisation, both at home and at school. Mass media, including the Internet, also play an important role.
“There are reliable TV programmes that teach us about consumer health choices, for example. Having reliable health knowledge, we understand what is beneficial for us and what is harmful. On this basis, we make choices that ultimately make up a specific lifestyle. It should be emphasised, however, that this choice is not unlimited” says the researcher from the University of Silesia. Why? The winner of the competition “Postcovid Horizon” indicates an example of healthy eating, which is often associated with more expensive food products. Therefore, whether we decide to buy them, to a large extent depends on our economic situation.
Health literacy is concerned with both physical and psychosocial health. “Unfortunately, it seems that most people do not have the ability to constructively deal with the ubiquitous stress. The older generation also often does not have such skills, mainly due to the lack of education in this field. That is why some people smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or eat sweets to suppress unpleasant emotions. Is it healthy? No.” says Karina Leksy, PhD.
Today – as the statistics show – mental health problems are particularly common. Emotional disorders affect not only adults, but also adolescents and children. We live in times of global crises, such as a pandemic or an ongoing war, which disturb our sense of security and control over our lives. Most of all, however, schools lack reliable, systematic health education, which is why it is more difficult for us, as a society, to constructively deal with the challenges of todays world.
“It can of course be said that people in need of support can get psychological or psychotherapeutic help, but these services are becoming a luxury product” admits the researcher. “Of course, it is possible to use the state health service, but its possibilities are quite limited, while private visits generate high costs and not everyone can afford them.”
School management during a pandemic
Questionnaire surveys under the COVID-HL Network consortium are carried out in many countries simultaneously. “Our research covered 8 provinces. The questionnaires, which were anonymous and completed voluntarily, were sent by e-mail to school principals/vice-principals. In the Silesian Voivodeship, we were helped in disseminating the questionnaire by the Silesian Superintendent of Education, Urszula Bauer, MA. I would like to thank you on behalf of the entire team. In the case of the remaining voivodships, we sent invitations to participate in the research ourselves” says Karina Leksy, PhD. “The research was conducted from June to December 2021.” Ultimately, 1,899 principals filled out the questionnaires. As the questionnaire is very extensive and covers many questions, including open-ended questions, some directors did not complete it in full (a total of 928 respondents did so).
The questionnaire was divided into several parts. The first part includes questions on demographic data and the hourly workload or work experience at school. The second part concerned the current professional situation of principals, as well as their mental health and the perceived stress during the lockdown, when schools were closed and online learning was introduced, which was associated with various difficulties, including those related to the lack of appropriate equipment. The third part of the study consisted of questions on COVID-19, for example, to what extent school principals judge the accuracy of the information on the topic or whether it was, in their opinion, sufficient. The fourth part of the questionnaire focused on school’s activities aimed at the prophylaxis and promotion of health undertaken every day and during the pandemic. The last part of the survey focused on the assessment of the health needs of students and teachers, as well as the health of school principals/vice-principals themselves.
First research results
The first results of the questionnaires show that school principals had a higher sense of stress caused by, inter alia, unexpected situations at school they had to deal with during the pandemic.
“They also often felt that they were not in full control of the situation. Probably like all of us” – says the researcher.
Interestingly, in the case of involvement in work, the women managing educational institutions were more devoted to their professional work during that time. Women showed greater commitment to work, sacrifice at the expense of sleep or lunch break, and were often available to parents, students and teachers during their free time. Almost 70% of them worked longer than they should.
“We can make many different hypotheses here. Women in managerial positions often have to “prove” their professional competence. It also seems that they are more conscientious and responsible, which is probably related to the fact that often the woman is the person who takes responsibility for children, family and dependents. Such sacrifice, sometimes beyond strength, is almost the norm in Poland. It is the myth of the Polish mother, and now also a superwoman” explains the researcher “it is worth emphasising, however, that according to the results of the research, despite the fact that school administrators felt overloaded and stressed, they also felt a high degree of job satisfaction. They felt that what they did was a right thing to do” admits Leksy.
The data obtained also show that the surveyed principals often suppressed irritation or nervousness in their workplace. Although on the one hand they experienced a high level of stress and fatigue during the pandemic, and on the other felt great responsibility for the course and continuity of the teaching process of students and teachers’ work, they were able to motivate and act for the benefit of the school. But how long people can function like this without risking their health?
“Long-term stress, work at such a high level, lack of rest and time for oneself and the family is a significant risk factor for the emergence of chronic mental and physical health problems, such as hypertension.” says the researcher from the University of Silesia. Even the respondents, when completing the questionnaire which also included questions about current health problems, signaled ailments suggesting a relationship with excessive stress and mental tension, such as, for example, muscle pains in the neck and shoulders and headaches.
“The research conducted by my team, in which the respondents were school principals and vice-principals, is extremely interesting and innovative” emphasises the winner of the “Postcovid Horizon” competition. Much of the pandemic research carried out by scientists around the world relates primarily to the health of children and adolescents. Research concerning managers of educational institutions also takes place, but they mainly concern issues related to infrastructure, including availability of equipment necessary for distance learning.
“The research also has a practical application, because on the basis of the diagnosis obtained, indicating problems and needs during a pandemic, it is possible to formulate proposals for system solutions and individual strategies for caring for one’s physical and psychosocial well-being. The modern world is uncertain, we live in a society of risk. How to prepare for future crises that will probably come? We will not avoid them, but as individuals we can take more care of our own health, learn to deal with stress better, e.g. through sport, yoga or meditation. It is also worth learning how to set boundaries in the workplace and limit your availability outside working hours. It is our challenge for the future. The price is health of all of us!” concludes Leksy.
The project “Health literacy of school principals/vice-principals during the COVID-19 pandemic” is conducted by: Karina Leksy, PhD (leader), Katarzyna Borzucka-Sitkiewicz, PhD, DLitt from the Institute of Pedagogy of the University of Silesia and Prof. Rafał Muster from the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Silesia.
Karina Leksy, PhD from the Institute of Pedagogy of the University of Silesia | Photo: private archive