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Suffering in silence can cost you

Teachers' workload and stress remain at the top of the union agendas. They have also been an issue for the courts, where two cases involving stress-induced illnesses of teachers resulted in landmark decisions earlier this year.

The Court of Appeal overturned a High Court decision that two schools had been negligent by not doing enough to help employees suffering stress-related illness (TES, February 15).

The High Court followed the precedent set by the case of Walker v Northumberland County Council 1995, where a social worker with a heavy caseload suffered a nervous breakdown. On his return to work the employer did not lighten the load, he suffered a relapse, and was dismissed on the ground of permanent ill health. The council was judged negligent in failing to help him, when the risks to his health were reasonably foreseeable.

This case established that an employer could be in breach of a duty of care by not responding in a reasonable manner. But the Appeal Court has made it clear that staff must also act to help themselves.

In the first appeal a teacher had been awarded pound;90,000 compensation for depression, but the Appeal Court accepted the employers' argument that her workload had been no greater than colleagues', and her frequent absences could have stemmed from other causes.

In the second case, the High Court award of pound;100,000 compensation for a teacher's depression was overturned, as he had not informed the school about his illness until he suffered a breakdown.

The Appeal Court verdict implies that if teachers suffer in silence then they cannot expect a head or governing body to second-guess their state of mind. Teachers who feel stress ought to inform their heads otherwise heads are entitled to take what they see and are told at face value; they are not expected to make searching enquiries about the mental health of staff.

But if there are clear warning signs then heads would be well advised to investigate and act to reduce stressors. Otherwise they may be judged negligent.

Refer to: Walker v Northumberland CC1995; Terence Sutherland (chairman of the governors of St Thomas Becket RC high school v Penelope Hatton 2002; and Somerset CC v Leonard Alan Barber 2002.

Chris Lowe is honorary legal consultant of the Secondary Heads Association, and editor of Croners School Governors' Manual

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