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Teachers' health gets active look

The Government's health watchdogs are stepping up their efforts to get teachers' employers to take staff well-being seriously - and they expect to see signs of action by the middle of next year.

The Health and Safety Executive is mounting a series of workshops across the country to highlight the fact that work-related stress is one of the largest causes of occupational ill health in the public sector. It is in the midst of staging free one-day sessions on "healthy workplace solutions"

in five occupational areas where it says the incidence of stress is greatest, including education, health and financial services - as well as central and local government.

New "management standards" are being introduced, pinpointing what the Health and Safety Executive calls "the business case for managing attendance and the entire range of information and support HSE has to offer on managing sickness absence and return to work processes."

Teacher Support Scotland, the national agency which lobbies for staff well-being in schools, welcomed the HSE initiative and argued that addressing the problem would benefit employers as well as employees. Mike Finlayson, TSS's chief executive, said: "Support for teachers in Scotland remains wholly inadequate and a new approach to teachers' well-being needs to be taken."

Research undertaken by Teacher Support Scotland and NHS Health Scotland found that the majority of teachers considered their jobs to be very or extremely stressful - and 90 per cent believed the situation was getting worse.

The recent study by Glasgow University academics for the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (TESS, October 6) confirmed that teachers were working beyond their contractual 35-hour week, to an average of 45 hours.

Mr Finlayson acknowledged that additional workload and indiscipline were adding to the stress on teachers but so, too, were "culture and management style".

Fife and Renfrewshire councils are the only education authorities which have signed up to work with TSS and the Worklife Support organisation to promote staff well-being, a project which is running alongside the HSE's move to develop stress management standards.

Gordon Ratcliffe, development officer for staff welfare in Fife's education department, said pupil behaviour and discipline have been among the key elements of his council's drive to improve staff welfare. The aim was to improve staff morale and therefore the effectiveness of schools.

He said staff have four top priorities: improve and balance their workloads; develop the skills and training they need to do their job; create closer links between management and staff; and improve communications.

But, Mr Ratcliffe acknowledged, there were "challenges" - confronting attitudes, securing funding, finding time, changing cultures, embedding processes and making improvements stick.

Gillian Mackay, head of North Queensferry Primary, which is involved in the Fife project, agreed there were challenges, one of which was keeping staff welfare at the top of the agenda amid the workload pressures bearing down on schools. A "well-being focussed school" was her focus for the future, emotionally, physically and mentally - but that had to be backed by a commitment from the local authority.

Ms Mackay also underlined the importance of honesty in making pledges on staff well-being - and this should include improving the surroundings in school staffrooms. "Getting everyone involved" was an important message, she said.

Worklife Support, which backs local authority initiatives on staff well-being, points to a programme in London as evidence of its effectiveness. In one of the city's authorities between 2004 and 2005, schools involved in the project saw a 33 per cent fall in sickness absence in primary schools, while others recorded a 15 per cent rise; in the secondary sector, participating schools experienced a 36 per cent drop in staff absence compared with a 5 per cent decrease in those outside the programme.

In the same London authority, the difference in the reduction of staff turnover between the two groups of schools was 50 per cent.

Mike Finlayson urged education authorities to establish the nature and extent of risks faced by their staff: "For teachers, the greatest risk is psychological injury, which is less visible but no less damaging.

"Stress-related illness among teachers appears to be growing and levels of sickness and absence are increasing. As the HSE points out, the cost of this in terms of sickness, absence, early retirement and lost productivity is enormous. Failure to understand and mitigate risk can land an employer in court facing a hefty fine or settlement."


* Departmental meetings with teaching and support staff

* Bulletin about absent staff, supply teachers, and so on

* Staff social events

* Staff welfare as a standing item on meeting agendas

* Handbook for new staff and supply teachers

* Assertiveness and time management training

* Stress awareness training

* Health and well-being events

* Staff welfare notice boards

* Improvements to physical appearance of schools

* Wider used of internal support.

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