One study participant said they found themselves on the verge of tears in their office, something that had rarely happened before.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a severe toll on the mental health and well-being of the people running Quebec’s educational establishments, according to a study unveiled during the 89th convention of the Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences.

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“Uninterested,” “unmotivated,” “disconnected” and “discouraged” are just a few of the words used by study participants to describe their experience during the pandemic.

“I had moments … of anxiety, of stress,” one participant told researchers. “I was questioning my life.”

The same participant said they found themselves on the verge of tears in their office, an experience they said has only occurred a handful of times over a 12-year career.

Another participant had similar experiences: “I saw an enormous mountain that I could not get past. … I was in my office and I had tears in my eyes. … It’s impossible, I won’t make it, what they’re asking of us isn’t doable.

“We’re greeting children who are scared, parents who are scared, staff members who are scared, but you have to be strong, solid, confident. I found it difficult; we never stopped.”

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Professor Emmanuel Poirel of the Université de Montréal and his colleagues asked 1,157 school administrators to respond to an online survey in 2019. In 2021, a panel of 20 people — six men and 14 women — was interviewed via Zoom. Sixteen of them worked in elementary schools and four in high schools.

School principals questioned during the study spoke of “cognitive overload” and “a far more heavy workload” where “40 people … want to talk to you at the same time and you’re not able to understand them.”

It was not so much an issue of working additional hours, but “the intensity of those hours,” some respondents said. One noted that it wasn’t workload that was excessive, but the nature of the work, while another described the work as “invasive.”

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Others felt they were perpetually “on call” with a phone that “could ring any moment,” including nights and weekends. “It’s always on our personal time… something happens.”

Researchers note that being a school principal has already been known as extremely demanding. A study conducted between November 2019 and January 2020 saw 98 per cent of respondents say they worked “intensely”; 92 per cent said they carried out their work “very fast” and 87 per cent said their work was emotionally demanding.

The pandemic exacerbated that situation. Overtime has doubled since the start of the health crisis, principals spent more time working nights and 93 per cent admitted feeling negative emotions in connection with their work.

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