The cost of workplace overload

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Managers cannot afford to ignore stress, as recent court cases show. Phil Revell looks at these cases and at stress-busting practices at a Fresh Start school

THE pound;300,000 awarded to a tea-cher in the settlement of a recently-publicised stress case should set alarm bells ringing in every education department, head's office and governors' meeting.

The teacher, who worked at a special school in Shropshire, won the record-breaking damages after being forced to leave his post due to stress.

Five years ago a new headteacher was appointed to the school and quickly introduced new disciplinary policies which failed to meet the needs of the school's "challenging" pupils. Staff concerns were ignored and just four months after the new head's arrival the teacher began suffering symptoms of stress.

"There was no scale of sanctions which made any sense to me," said the 45-year-old father of two, identified only as Mr A by the National Union of Teachers which backed his case. He tried to warn the head, both about the risk to children and about stressed staff and at the end of the summer term he went to see an officer at the education authority.

"I said things were so bad that the school was a disaster, staff were demoralised and stressed, and children were very much out of control," said Mr A.

"I said that I was at breaking point. I was in such a terrible state that I began to cry. I asked whether I ought to obtain counselling."

No counselling was offered and the following February Mr A was pushed down a flight of stairs by a pupil. Four days later he suffered a nervous breakdown and has been unable to worksince.

The key point in this sorry tale is Shropshire's failure to act once officers had been made aware of the problem. The legal precedent was set by what has become known as the John Walker case.

John Walker was a social worker employed by Northumberland County Council. Over a 12-month period the pressures of his work caused him to have two nervous breakdowns. Before the breakdowns Mr Walker had complained about his workload but there was nothing to indicate that he was cracking up under the strain or that social workers were particularly at risk.

After the first episode he was promised extra help by his employer - but the extra help, crucially, was not forthcoming. The second breakdown resulted and the court case followed.

He had first to demonstrate that he had suffered an "injury". Medical evidence is necessary here, someone who simply says "I feel stressed" has no legal claim. It must also be shown that the employer could have "reasonably foreseen" the psychological harm. Northumberland could not be held liable for Mr Walker's first nervous breakdown, only the second.

Another point is that John Walker successfully showed his breakdowns to be the result of workplace stress. This can be difficult, given that there are pressures outside work.

In the Shropshire case Mr A apparently made every effort to inform his employers of his work stresses, but nothing was done, and it was this lapse which gave the NUT a cast-iron case.

The award was higher because of Mr A's age. Medical opinion is that he will never work again and the award reflects lost earnings and pension entitlements.

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