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  • Iiris Virtasalo

Finding ways to support principal well-being

School principals play a crucial role in the successful performance and development of schools. The role of principals is particularly emphasised in countries – such as Finland – where the decentralisation of decision-making gives school principals a highly independent position. In Finland, principals face growing challenges: policy reforms, increasing managerial tasks, and coping with conflicting demands. Principals experience high levels of stress in their work, which has raised a strong interest to identify factors that could support principal well-being. Among them, self-efficacy has been discussed as a resource in protecting individuals from psychological strain.

Principals, stress and self-efficacy

In my master’s thesis, I examined the connection between self-efficacy and physiological stress on Finnish principals. First, I explored the connection between principals’ perceived self-efficacy and physiological stress, and second, the changes in the stress and self-efficacy levels from 2019 to 2020. As earlier research has mostly focused on the self-reported stress and self-efficacy, this study raised further implications on the understudied link between perceived self-efficacy and the physiological stress on principals. The theoretical framework of the study is the social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura. Bandura suggests that the stress-protective role of self-efficacy should result in diminished physiological stress responses. In my thesis, I tested two hypothesis. According to the first hypothesis, principals with high self-efficacy are less stressed than principals with lower self-efficacy. According to the second hypothesis, the self-efficacy of the principals’ stays relatively stable from 2019 to 2020.

Data of the study consisted of questionnaire data and physiological measurements. The self-efficacy levels of the participants were measured by using the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire-II. The physiological measurements were collected with mobile heart rate monitoring device Firstbeat BodyGuard 2. The data was analysed using the Pearson correlation, linear regression analysis and paired sample t-test.


Results of the study

In my thesis, I showed that the self-efficacy levels and physiological stress levels are statistically significantly connected. Consistent with the first hypothesis, principals with high self-efficacy are less stressed during office hours than principals with lower self-efficacy on both years. In addition, the connection between age and the stress levels and self-efficacy levels were studied. The analysis shows that principals with higher age had more physiological stress than their younger colleagues in 2019. However, in 2020, age was not connected to higher stress levels. No evidence was found that the stress and self-efficacy levels of the Finnish principals would have changed from 2019 to 2020. The direction of the change would indicate that the principals were slightly more stressed in 2020 than 2019. However, the change was not statistically significant.


Further implications My master’s thesis contributed to a comprehensive understanding of self-efficacy and stress of Finnish principals, and the findings could support principals’ wellbeing and their commitment to work. Based on the research results, further training or interventions can be planned. Research based tools could help principals boost their self-efficacy and diminish their work-related strain and stress factors. Studying the well-being of principals is important for principals themselves, but also more broadly for the entire school community and society. Principals with high well-being are more efficient and able to do better in their work and a source of inspiration for staff and pupils. Principals who recognise their resources and focus on their capabilities can lead well-managed and enthusiastic school communities.

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