Bad management is largely to blame for rising levels of stress in schools, according to the solicitor who represented the first teacher to win compensation for the harmful effects of overwork.
John Usher, of Thompson, a Leeds law firm, acted for a member of the NASUWT, the second biggest teachers' union, who, early this year, reached an out-of-court settlement worth around pound;47,000 with a local authority in the North-West. The teacher, now aged in his fifties, developed a depressive illness when his workload became unmanageable and his employer failed to do anything about it.
In another case that Mr Usher is handling, a teacher was bullied by the headteacher and chair of governors of her school to such an extent that she is alleging assault.
"My experience is that teachers have a particular difficulty with stress, which is not necessarily associated with the teaching of children but more with the additional responsibilities increasingly placed upon them and with very poor standards of management," says Mr Usher, who also represented John Walker, the first person in Britain to sue his employer for work-related stress successfully (see box).
No stress cases involving teachers have yet reached the courts but the issue was in the news last month after Muriel Benson, a membermember of the NUT, also won pound;47,000 in an out-of-court settlement with her former employer, the metropolitan borough of Wirral on Merseyside. The council has not admitted liability but Mrs Benson says she took ill health retirement eight years after first complaining about having to work a 66-hour week. She claims that nothing was done to reduce this gruelling workload and that the authority did not act on her record of stress-related sickness.
Maureen Cooper, author of a forthcoming book on staff health and school effectiveness, says many schools fail to tackle the causes of sickness absence. This often leads to a downward spiral: staff covering for absent colleagues come under excessive pressure and the quality of teaching and learning in the school as a whole begins to suffer.
"We've created a culture in education where we believe it's wrong to talk to people about sickness absence," she says. "But if you look at many other fields of employment - the retail sector, for example - line managers are expected to routinely sit down and talk to staff about a range of issues, including their levels of absence."
Much of the advice on stress at work concentrates on helping individuals cope with the symptoms. Less attention is paid to analysing practices likely to cause stress and to considering how those practices might be changed, says Ms Cooper. An effective strategy needs to begin with a senior management commitment to doing something about excessive workloads and other pressures on staff, she says.
Some local authorities have begun encouraging schools to take a more preventative approach. Norfolk County Council became concerned a few years ago about rising levels of sickness and ill health retirements among teachers. "We put in a staff counselling scheme which was very successful, but we thought counselling was a coping strategy and that we ought to move to something more preventative," says Ray Philpott, the authority's head of educationpersonnel services.
A survey of county council staff found that stress levels were higher in schools than in all other departments except for highways contractors and trading standards. Full-time primary schoolteachers felt more stressed than secondary teachers. Headteachers were the most stressed group of all.
Working with the Teachers' Benevolent Fund, the charity which also runs the Government-funded helpline for teachers suffering from stress, Norfolk began developing a well-being programme last year which is now being piloted in about 30 schools. If it is successful, a well-being strategy will become part of Norfolk schools' development plans.
An important element of the programme is the stress audit that schools carry out. "All the teachers in the school fill in a questionnaire so that we can find out what issues are contributing to stress," explains Ray Philpott. "We then feed that back to the school, talk to the management team and help them and the staff to develop programmes to tackle the issues that have come out of the audit."
Northamptonshire County Council has been offering schools and individual teachers similar assistance for the past three years and its experience is encouraging. Absence levels have come down where schools have carried out a stress audit, sent staff on stress management courses and taken other measures to reduce stress, says Steve Thorp, the county's education employee assistance adviser. But he points out that sometimes short-term absence rises as people become more confident about discussing their feelings and taking time off when they are run down.
While the picture on absence levels is somewhat confused, there are indications that measures taken to reduce stress levels have contributed to school improvement. Referring to one Northamptonshire school which has reported improved results after taking such measures, Steve Thorp says: "I wouldn't claim that this was because of just one initiative; it would have to be taken alongside a range of other interventions for school improvement. But I see the work that we are doing on stress as going alongside that, rather than being separate from it."
THE LEGAL HURDLES
Teachers hoping to win compensation for the effects of stress at work must first get over a series of legal hurdles laid down by a ruling five years ago. John Walker was a senior social worker in Northumberland when the second of two nervous breakdowns caused by overwork forced him to abandon his career. He was awarded pound;175,000 damages after a court found that Northumberland County Council had failed to support him as it had promised after his first breakdown. The court ruled that the council should have foreseen Mr Walker would suffer another bout of illness if he were exposed to the same kind of workload again.
The case established that for stress claims to succeed, employees must show a direct causal link between their working conditions and their health problems, and that the risk to their health was reasonably foreseeable. They must also begin their claim within three years of realising that working conditions were damaging their health.
"That's often a problem because many teachers claim to have been suffering from stress for much longer than three years by the time they come to us," says Mary Howard, legal officer for the NASUWT, which is investigating about 90 stress claims and has instructed solicitors in a further 20 cases. The NUT, the largest teachers' union, is investigating more than 100 claims and preparing for litigation in about 30 others, while the Association of Teachers and Lectures, which last year won a pound;101,000 settlement for a member allegedly bullied by his headteacher, is also pursuing several cases.
The unions have high hopes that some of these claims will succeed, though they expect them to be settled out of court. "LEAs do not want a precedent established because that would open the floodgates to claims from teachers, so if there is any chance of success, I think they will offer a settlement," says Ms Howard.
HOW TO HELP
To avoid stress-related compensation claims, school managers need to:
* recognise that work pressures can trigger illness
* communicate to others that anyone - not just wimps - can experience stress
* encourage staff to talk about the stresses and strains of the job andto support each other and listento staff with problems
* develop a whole-school behaviour policy to help staff deal withdisruptive pupils
* encourage staff to use stresscounselling services, where available
* recognise individuals' fears ofreturning to work after sickness absence and provide support
Adapted from 'Staff Health and School Effectiveness' by Maureen Cooper, pound;8.95, published later this month by Network Educational Press, PO Box 635, Stafford ST16 1BF