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'Lobby to make schools mentally healthy places to work'

We wouldn’t let teachers work in asbestos buildings but stressful environments are a bigger killer, writes Natasha Devon

Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon warns of the risks of trying to judge wellbeing in schools

We wouldn’t let teachers work in asbestos buildings but stressful environments are a bigger killer, writes Natasha Devon

Earlier this week, the royal charity coalition, Heads Together, announced a new drive to help ensure British employees are mentally well at work. None other than the Duke of Cambridge visited various workplaces and held an event to unveil a new "toolkit" to support the campaign, which led to social media being awash with images and quotes on mental health from HRH.

Mind, which was the lead charity collaborating on the project, conducted a study involving 44,000 British adults that found half had struggled with their mental health at work. The findings chimed with a survey across Bauer Media brands (Kiss, Grazia, Heat) earlier in the year; while its sample size was considerably smaller (1,565 people), it found that 53 per cent of respondents had experienced a mental health issue. The endlessly quoted "one in four" stat – derived from a 2004 census – has, it would appear, been thoroughly debunked. 

Of course, the royals are obliged to steer clear of any campaign with a political dimension. This is unfortunate since mental health at work is an intrinsically political topic. It could be argued that, for a significant swathe of the population, policy changes have led to their working conditions causing their mental ill health in the first place. This is particularly true if one happens to work in the public sector. 

Pushed to breaking point

Adam Kay’s magnificent, best-selling book, This is Going to Hurt, details his time as a doctor working in a NHS hospital. The constant, unrelenting and unrealistic demands on his time eventually led to him having a breakdown and leaving the profession. There are several junctures, described throughout the book, at which any other type of employee, whose presence didn’t literally make the difference between life or death, would have walked away. But Kay stayed until the job broke him. He cared – as any good doctor should – but that led to his downfall. 

Teachers face a similar dilemma. Most are painfully aware that every moment of their professional existence is leaving an indelible footprint on the impressionable and potentially vulnerable young people in their care. During the 2016 strike over increased testing, the Department for Education deliberately used emotive language in an attempt to emphasise this, stating that the action was "playing politics with children’s futures" (which is rather like the kettle calling the frying pan "dirty bottom"). 

Research conducted by the BBC for an episode of Inside Out last year revealed 70 per cent of teachers had taken time off work for a physical or mental health complaint they attributed directly to the stress of their job during the previous 12 months. It strikes me as odd that this situation is allowed when stress is widely acknowledged to be a leading cause of death. Why do we allow this when we wouldn’t permit teachers to work in environments we knew were riddled with asbestos, or where they risked falling down a giant pothole or being mauled by a passing tiger? 

The answer, I suspect, is that mental ill health and stress is still tied up with ideas about "professionalism" and "character". For all the magnificent awareness-raising that has taken place over the past decade, Britain still hasn’t quite shaken off its hugely toxic "stiff upper lip". This is further evidenced by the Bauer Media survey, which reported that up to 50 per cent of people who have had to take time off work for their mental health lied to their line manager and provided a different reason for their absence. 

Petitioning for change

That’s one of the reasons why, on 8 October, I’ll be taking a petition to Downing Street calling for the government to make mental health first-aiders in the workplace a mandatory requirement, just as their physical equivalents are. If the law is changed, I don’t expect it will magically make schools a less stressful place to work, but I do think it will have a dramatic, positive impact on culture and attitudes. After all, the first thing one learns on a mental health first-aid course is that mental health exists on a spectrum, around which we may shift throughout our lives. In other words, recovery from and management of mental illness is entirely possible, in just the same way as it is for physical illness, and does not render a person a less capable employee, provided the right support is in place. 

Furthermore, to take the action of actually changing the Health and Safety at Work Act would show that the government was serious in its commitment to improving mental health (more than mysteriously disappearing pots of funding and vague soundbites ever could). 

So far, more than 180,000 people agree and have signed our petition. If you want to add your support, click here. 

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and typically visits three schools per week across the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon 

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