Wednesday 11th December 2019

15 Years Ago & Now. 2017.104.

15 Years Ago & Now. 2017.104.

Fifteen Years Ago.

As I have written before, and is part of my bio, I was a K-6 School Principal in a N.S.W. Public School from 1999-2003. Before then I had been a relieving principal in two schools from 1994-1998. In 1999 I was appointed, by merit selection, to this school. The brief, once I was appointed, from my boss, the District Superintendent was “Denyse, I want you to bring this school into the 21st Century.” He was correct in that. It certainly was stuck back in probably an era two decades earlier. When I began in January 1999, replacing the former principal who died in the September school holidays earlier, I literally had to start the school’s organisation and planning from scratch. Why? Because the person I replaced trusted no-one and kept all leadership matters to himself,  and died with all the school passwords and information for getting things up and running. I took over a mess.

But I love a challenge and there were some good people who wanted to come along on this journey into the century we were on the cusp of entering. The school executive team was keen and wanted to learn more and  I could definitely help them with this and we formed a good group. Until the end of that first year. It really was a change that I could not stop and is part of what happens in school systems anyway but it made my job more challenging for sure. The school was unique in the area at that time with: mainstream classes, a special education unit of 3 classes, 2 O.C. (gifted and talented) classes and an Autism Satellite Class. Two of the people who were part of the executive team sought and got promotions elsewhere. Yes. I would encourage that of course. However, it left a hole for a bit which I was able to carry myself until I could get some new staff appointed.

Over the next 2 years however, this plan started to waiver. I had appointed a person to an executive role who was not up to the role. I take responsibility for that but it was a most unpleasant time as his continued absence from school due to ‘illness’ meant I had parents (and some teachers) calling for action. In the end, my district superintendent moved this person on and I could fill the role internally. I was relieved for a little while but then my best and most competent person in my team had to leave to have her first child. This was lovely for her and her husband and I wished her well. The remaining executive member who was my age decided to take Long Service Leave for the remainder of the year.

This meant I had NO fully qualified person holding an executive role in my very busy and varied school community.  But what did I do? I appointed people who were staff members who said they would like to learn more about the role and support the school  by taking on relieving roles for the remainder of 2002. This worked in some ways but I needed to take on more of their responsibilities myself or guide them step by step. It was as if I was doing multiple roles. I could sense how much I had taken on in June that year when I ended up writing a casual teacher’s class reports!


I did not know what this was doing to my mental health although I probably should have read the signs. I sought time out from the school to attend meetings and to meet with colleagues but at NO TIME did I actually tell my boss what it was like for me. In fact, I had said farewell to the District Superintendent who’d appointed me at his retirement and he was replaced by someone in an acting position. And, it still is the same now, a principal is meant to handle anything and everything that comes up. Well. Maybe in 2017 there might be greater awareness of principals’ mental health but not when I was becoming unwell. Even though I did not know it. I can look back now and see I was quick to anger and showed my displeasure when people did not comply because of their own incompetencies or my ‘view’ of how they should behave in the role. This led to….the following:

On a September evening in 2002 I received a telephone call at home from one of my relieving executive staff. She told me that there would be a delegation of staff coming to me the next day to make a complaint about my manner and behaviour. She said they had contacted our union and that person would be at the school. She also said that there was a rumour it was because of me that the school population was declining and that as that would mean at least one staff member would have to be transferred then I needed to step up. I could and did dispute this as the reason as schools’ populations change for a variety of reasons but instead I reacted personally.

This sure was a bolt out of the blue. But then again, I actually could see how my behaviour had changed and recognised that I was fast losing my grip on being a leader. Within moments of the conversation ending, and letting my husband know what had occurred I broke down. In tears and physical distress I knew I had to protect my health/self and I could NOT face such a meeting. I could not reach my boss and had to wait till the next day. I did not sleep and went to my G.P. as soon as I could that morning. It was very unlike me not to continue to be at work.

That day, 4th September 2002, she declared that I was suffering from anxiety and depression  due to work overload and that she would start the process of a work cover application.

I never went back to that school, that role or saw anyone other than my boss and the local district HR staff again. It was final and I NEVER  could have seen me, a competent and dedicated teacher, finishing my career JUST.LIKE.THAT.


So much time has passed and yet this time of 15 years ago remains very clear. It is imprinted upon my mind as ‘the time when I failed to do the job I was appointed for‘. Then again  as was  the culture of the time it meant I could not share how I was managing with anyone. Mental health management  in the workplace is hopefully becoming more recognised but there is still a huge stigma attached and shame as well. My shame is decreasing each time I tell my story. It did take courage for me to start to tell my story a few years ago because I did not want to admit my so-called ‘failings‘ as a school principal. I am the one who labelled these, no-0ne else.

The upshot of what happened to me impacts me still in some ways. I did have the claim for workcover met and was paid accordingly. However, as in all workcover matters many steps need to be followed as the recipient and these include ‘return to work’ plans. I simply could not do that. My GP was adamant that I NEVER return to that school nor to the role of principal. Interestingly when I was first on leave I could not even attend my grandchild’s school without a great deal of fear and anxiety.

I was treated by more than my GP. I had to attend meetings with my employer and work cover and to see a psychiatrist and psychologist but what they all wanted me to do I could not. I could not even drive on the road that would lead me to my old school. I was scared!

If I knew what I know now about myself I think I may have been prepared to expose myself to the experience of coming to work at the local district office instead of refusing (avoiding) because I felt such fear and shame. I also think with the knowledge I have now about my mental toughness and resilience that I could have stayed employed.

But no, as I found in early 2003, I HAD to resign my role and give up any rights so that I could, hopefully gain my superannuation lump sum. I was in a scheme which did not medically retire (sadly I had taken myself out of that scheme when we were first married) so the action was to leave under circumstances that were never envisaged by me. Then came an even tougher time when the Superannuation people interrogated me and tested me and declared I was fit and able to return to work. This was disputed by my medical team and it took the lawyers from my union (free for me) to gain my benefit.

For all of 2003 I took time out to explore my creative side, I volunteered at the Smith Family and I met with friends for coffee. I had many appointments to continue my self-styled rehabilitation after I declined to take part in any more of the WorkCover requirements. In early 2004 I needed more. I needed to be with people again and to teach!

There was much more that was good to happen to me from May 2004 onwards which I did for myself by returning to a teaching role in friend’s school and having no executive responsibilities. I was happily engaged in that work from 2004-2009 and had to be careful to not take on too much as I was only to work part-time. But I got my sense of being a teacher again.

So why tell this story?

The stories relating to stress, work overload and anxiety in the workplace need to be shared widely. I now know my personality  type and management style is that I need to be sure of things and want things to be done well and correctly. This was not happening in 2002 but I also held onto the notion that a principal deals with everything without telling the boss how it actually is. I have wondered how it may have worked if I had had the courage to tell someone. I did not even tell my husband.  I became unwell mentally and emotionally because I did not reach out to others and when I was finally diagnosed I was not to return to the workplace. I wonder now, if maybe things could have worked out better for me if I had the resilience I have today.

But we shall never know. I hope that by telling this story I could encourage others to speak up and share if the workload is too much. Tell someone. I know I should have.

Does anything here ring true for you or someone you know?


Joining in with Kylie Purtell here for I Blog On Tuesdays and with Leanne here for her Lovin’ Life Linky on Thursdays.






  1. This must have been such a difficult one to write. I’m so sorry that you hand to go through that.

    • Thank you Kat. It was, as they say, good to write it out (again!). I think I blogged the story waaaay long ago and it is no longer there. It is an interesting story for me because “If I knew then what inner strength and capacity I have it may have been something I would have faced and challenged.” Yet, I did not have those inner skills or understanding then nor did my medical professionals. I remain very proud of becoming a principal and “bringing that school into the 21st C”. D xx

  2. I totally understand this Denyse, toxic work environments can be so damaging and taking on more work & responsibility than we are supposed to is just one way this can happen. I worked for a now defunct chain bookstore that had an environment like this and I knew I needed to get out when I realised I didn’t even recognise myself and the way I was treating others because of the mental anxiety & stress. I know I wasn’t alone in how I felt about the company/workplace as I found out after I left (I continued to work there casually for almost a year after I resigned as a manager to help pay for our wedding & house deposit) that I was only the first of almost all the store managers in the Sydney area who resigned and went elsewhere within a 3 month period. We had all been feeling the same anxiety, anger & overwhelm, and yet not one of us had felt supported enough to be able to say anything about it.

    I am so sorry that your career ended the way it did, and I can only hope that they have learnt from your experience and have systems in place to support their leaders both in their jobs and in their mental health. The teachers and staff in a school are so, so important to our children, they give up so much and dedicate so much of their time to our kids that it’s simply criminal that things like this can be allowed to happen to exceptional teachers & leaders.

    • Oops, forgot to add #teamIBOT

    • Thank you for your story too and your understanding comments. It is true that when parents send their kids to school they need consistency and quality. It was really unfortunate that in one class’ case where an underperforming staff member had taken a lot of ‘sick leave’ that they missed some of that. This matter weighed heavily on me. I am sorry that you too had to put up with such a toxic workplace. Sharing our stories must be helpful to others even if they are conversation starters. Thanks again for your words. Denyse x

  3. I spent three months the other year in a highly toxic place and I couldn’t leave soon enough. I don’t know how I got through those three months! I now keep an eye out for places that hire regularly – as they say, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.

    • How true. In my case, as ‘boss’ I can see now I was not managing but at the time I did not recognise it nor could I see myself actually telling anyone it was hard. I did have the ‘ear’ of my former boss but when he left, the other man was not someone who I felt I could talk things over with. D x

  4. Oh yes Denyse. I can relate to this and have had periods in my career when I’ve really struggled – dreading going to work. Hated being there. Consumed more wine than I should have at night because I didn’t want to go to bed and begin the next day. Tears of despair and self doubt.

    I’m not great at asking for help. I love that you’ve shared this and I think it’s important to let people know when we’re not coping or need help.

    Deb xx

    • I think when we are capable, professional women it is something we struggle to do because we do not want to tarnish our ‘reputations’. I used to think sometimes, even when I was walking across the playground’ I want to be anywhere but here. Yet I know I did a good job but my health was already telling me the situation I was in was not helpful to me. Ah Deb. The sharing of stories needs to be done more and I am glad I felt confident enough in myself to do this today. Thanks for your support, as I offer to you any time! Denyse x

  5. Denyse, I relate so closely to your story here as it is very similar to my own. I walked out of work one day in May 2012 and never went back. Doctors tell me I had been suffering with chronic stress for many years. My story is long but I worked in a toxic and very understaffed environment and had taken on many roles besides my own. Living with chronic stress had become my normal which is why I didn’t know I was suffering with it, and I was unaware of the damage being done to me until shortly after the day I walked out. Thank you for telling your story. By telling our stories it helps others who have similar experiences realise they are not alone or weak or a failure … like we tend to think of ourselves sometimes (that negative self critical voice in our heads). Out of these adversities come lessons and opportunities to create a better life and better days ahead! 🙂

    • Ah Min, you are so right. Both of us trying as best as we could in situations that were not ideal. Both of us leaving jobs where we did well at some stage. Yes, through this adversity does come more strength but also we need to remember just how hard it was to come through and be as kind to ourselves as possible. Always!

  6. That’s an awful thing to have to go through. Unfortunately we went through a similar thing where a campaign of systemic bullying and harassment led to some drastic measures just to protect a 37 year career. Certainly not what was expected or planned for. It was awful to watch unfold – just awful – but in hindsight it led to some life changing decisions. Thank you for telling your story – it must have been tough, but if it can help anyone recognise that they’re going through a similar thing & believe that there’s no help for them, well, that’s a great thing.

    • Yes it was and I do tell there story for my own sake now and to help anyone else is a good thing. I was so ashamed of my ‘failure’ to complete my career in the way it happened but as we know now, slow and continuing overload at work is not always recognised even by the person who is doing the work. I had not connected the dots, I thought I had to work harder and not let anyone know. It’s not good to read what you have shared either. It does seem to occur in every workplace. Maybe that’s what we need to talk about more too. D xx

  7. Oh Denyse. What an extremely stressful period in your life. Sometimes we don’t realise how stressed, anxious and unhappy we are until it is very serious. I’m glad you never went back to that role or school and had the support of your GP. Thanks for sharing this very important story xx

    • That is so true even though I did not ‘like’ how I was feeling or behaving in some instances I never realised the seriousness until visiting the doctor. I am glad to be able to share the story now without shame but it’s taken quite a few years to get to this point. Thanks you for your kind words. D x

  8. How brave of you to share that story. It was so wrong you went through all that, and yet it is one that I’ve heard again and again (with a few variations). What is always struck me is that you are such a survivor and are so resilient. And you are so wise and generous with your knowledge. I’m glad you are able to tell your story so that others who feel like there is no way out can know that there is … There always is and sometimes what seems like the end is just a blessing in disguise. Doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t mean you can’t turn it around.

    • How kind Bronnie. There are times I feel that strength and resilience now as I understand the terminology and apply it to my cancer diagnosis and treatment. However, back then, in the early years I felt shame and a lot of guilt about how I ‘left my career.’ Blogging was one great way to learn to connect with others and I will always be grateful that I started my blog some years after this occurred and that I now have a safe and kind place in which to share. Thank you for popping in to comment! D x

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience, Denyse and how you have used it as an impetus for positive change in your life.

    SSG xxx

    • Thank you SSG. It is told to help others too who may not even realise what is happening to them. I know I was so overwhelmed and overworked but just kept on going and it was “good” in some ways to have this huge thing (to me) happen. It is interesting for me to note that I am no longer ashamed to share my story. D x

  10. I can relate to this too Denyse – a few years ago I ended up in the doctor’s office in tears because my boss had finally pushed me to breaking point. I ended up taking a couple of week’s stress leave – something I never could have imagined doing. I eventually had to leave and change my career path because it had taken such a toll on me. I think we oldest child/perfectionist/over-achievers always struggle with being gutted when our efforts are unappreciated. I’m glad you managed to move on and recover but it does leave a bad taste in your mouth doesn’t it?

    • Oh yes, it does and it took many month, writing letters that were never sent, telling counsellors what had happened and more to ‘get somewhere close to having a life again.; Pretty enormous for the school principal to walk away and never return (as you said, we struggle) and it was HARD for me to accept that I had to do that for the sale of my health. I do hope like is working out as well as it can for you too now as it has for me. D xx

  11. Oh wow Denyse, I am so sorry for what you have been through and in fact I wonder if something like this could end up happening to my hubster in HIS career (though he is not in teaching). Like you he just steps up and does what needs to be done, to his own detriment. People take advantage of his good nature and good work ethic. He soldiers on and takes pride in doing a good job to the point where he doesn’t want people to know he’s struggling. Even when he does try to make bosses etc aware, he gets promised help (no new work, more staff etc) but it never materialises. A lot of his stress and overload comes from being short staffed, there is always somebody on maternity leave or resigning or something. I keep trying to tell him he doesn’t have to say “no” when given more work, but rather, “yes, I will do this but that means I can’t do that other project”. Maybe I will make him read your blog post …

    • Oh dear. Reading that did make me reflect on what it was like in some ways for me. The thing I did though was hide it even though I never realised I was. He is fortunate to have you in so many ways. By all means show him this. I wish you both well. Thanks for your lovely comments. Denyse x

  12. Wow Denyse. How stressful! Thanks for sharing. I know it was probably hard to write but sharing it will help others. Thanks for letting us in. xoxo