Know your rights

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Children aren't the only ones who get bullied, reports Susannah Kirkman

One teacher in three claims to have been bullied at work, according to research carried out by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. A run-in with a bully can cause stress, damaged self-esteem, depression and even suicide, so don't suffer in silence.

"Members sometimes come to us with harrowing stories, but say, 'I don't want you to do anything'," says John Meredith, principal industrial relations officer at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "They are often worried about making matters worse by bringing it out into the open."

Ian Draper of the UK National Work Stress Network, a former teacher, says that bullies often try to conceal what they are up to. "When challenged, they might say, 'I'm only doing my job'," he says. "But if you're being harangued, challenge this behaviour."

Bullying is defined by the Industrial Society as "improper, offensive and humiliating behaviour, practices or conduct, which may threaten a person's job security, create an intimidating , unwelcome or stressful work environment, or cause personal offence or injury".

Shouting, giving impossible deadlines, making threats and removing responsibilities without consultation are signs of bullying.

Unfortunately, there is no legislation that directly addresses bullying; the Dignity at Work Bill, which would make bullying at work an offence like harassment or discrimination, looks unlikely to become law. But employers have a duty to provide a safe environment and to take reasonable steps to prevent staff from being injured at work; this includes the psychological harm which might result from persistent bullying.

If you are being bullied, the NASUWT recommends that you record the details. Other advice includes:

* Talk about it - raise the issue with union colleagues and find a supportive friend outside the situation to confide in.

* Find out if other colleagues have similar difficulties.

* Raise the issue with teacher governors.

* Always reply in writing to memos designed to harass or bully and keep copies of the responses.

* Always establish the status of meetings before agreeing to attend and, if possible, arrange for a "friend" to go with you.

* Attend an assertiveness course - some unions run training specifically on how to deal with bullies.

* If an incident leads to illness requiring sick leave, make a record in the school accidentincident book and complete Department of Social Security form B195, "Accident at Work - what to do about it".

* If you can, ask them to stop; this can be done verbally - ask a colleague to accompany you - or in writing. If informal approaches fail, consider formal procedures.

* Remember, it's not your fault.

The NASUWT advises against using grievance procedures, which are adversarial and can make things worse. Some local authorities have excellent procedures for dealing with bullying; your union will be able to tell you what is available in your area.

As a last resort, you could sue your employer under health and safety legislation for failing to provide a safe working environment. If you are forced out of your job because of bullying, you could take a case for constructive dismissal to an employment tribunal.

Teacher Support Line: 08000 562561;;

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