The high price of stress

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Schools that let stressed teachers return to work risk having to pay out huge amounts in damages, warns Chris Lowe

Teacher stress is hardly ever out of the news. One teacher tragically commits suicide; another leaves to go and work on the buses; a group of heads is taken away to the seaside by their chief education officer.

Actually the last may not have happened but may not be a bad idea: employers have a duty of care for their employees, which includes providing the resources to reduce the likelihood of a nervous breakdown.

Governing bodies, the employers of teachers in maintained as well as independent schools, have to balance this duty with their prime duty to educate pupils. The payout of pound;250,000 to Janice Howell - a special needs teacher who returned to work after a breakdown only to be given the same workload - should be a warning to them.

Governors must be certai that the teacher is fit for his or her duties before being allowed back. The teacher's doctor or the occupational health service may suggest that a teacher can return if a lighter workload is provided. But while it may be possible to reduce the time a teacher is in school, it is not as easy to keep the pressure down.

If a head and governing body can foresee that a teacher might be exposed to more stress when heshe returns to school, and does not take reasonable and effective measures to combat it, they may be open to a claim for damages. If the teacher is then dismissed on the grounds of ill health, they may be entitled to claim for unfair dismissal. Heads and governors should be careful before letting a partially fit colleague return. It is not only in the school's interests, it is in the teacher's too.

Chris Lowe is legal consultant to the Secondary Heads Association

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