Overworked and over here

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Fear of being sued has made American

employers take workers' worries seriously. So, asks Phil Revell, why don't we?

A RECENT report from Teacherline, the counselling helpline for teachers, estimated that nearly half the country's teachers suffered from stress.

Few will be surprised. Most managers in education are only too aware that the demands of the job create problems for even the most capable staff. And heads should be familiar with the John Walker case, where a social worker's claim for

damages hinged on the fact that his employer had been aware of his stress-related illness but took no action. A more recent case against Shropshire County

Council involved a teacher who won a settlement of pound;300,000.

Yet in America, stress-related illnesses - much like heart disease and alcoholism - are in decline. Over here, all three

continue to rise.

"Two trends in the US are

forcing firms to take action," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester

Institute of Science and

Technology. "The US industry is facing an enormous and ever-

spiralling bill for employee health care... the employers'

contribution has risen by 140 per cent since 1980."

It has also been estimated that $700 million (pound;496m) a year is spent in the US to replace the 200,000 men aged between 45 and 65 who either die or are

incapacitated by coronary heart disease alone.

"But in the UK," claims Professor Cooper, "employers can create intolerable levels of stress and leave it to the taxpayer to pick up the bill."

There is, he argues, no incentive for employers to maintain the health of their employees. Indirect costs are enormous, with absenteeism, low productivity and high labour turnover. "But rarely do firms attempt to estimate these costs; they treat them as an intrinsic part of running a business," he says.

The second trend forcing US employers to safeguard their staff is litigation. More and more, workers are suing their employers for what American courts describe as "cumulative trauma". And, as Professor Cooper acknowledges, the "see you in court" syndrome has already crossed the Atlantic, with a backlog of cases about to hit Britain's judicial system.

The future doesn't offer any immediate relief. Developments in information technology and the two-income family culture have created a situation in which the home is no longer a refuge, but an extension of the workplace. And recent legislation, in particular the Disability Discrimination Act, may offer another route tothe courts.

What can heads do? There's an argument that it is safer to do nothing because, as the law stands, it is the employers' awareness of the situation that creates liability. This is not a view with which Professor Cooper


He argues that the difficulties of recruitment ought to be an incentive for heads to address the issue seriously. "Good teachers will go to the better-managed schools," he says. "And, where teachers aren't properly managed, their performance will suffer, as will the school's results."

He recommends a 360-degree appraisal, where staff report anonymously through a third party on their managers so that each member of staff is assessed from every possible angle.

Heads need information about the pressures on staff. Too often, they are shocked to discover a

situation that may have been

developing unnoticed for months.

"These are basic management issues," Professor Cooper says. "Heads might say: 'Oh, it's down to the Government', but a good manager asks: 'What is it that I can do about this?'"

Professor Cooper argues that the main job of a head should be to try to create a positive atmosphere and to improve morale. "Praise is very important."

It's an example of what he calls secondary intervention - actions concerned with the detection and management of stress through greater awareness. But he would really like to see more primary intervention - where employers take preventive action to reduce stress. Put simply, this involves heads asking themselves: Do we have a problem? If we do, can we identify its cause? Are the causes departmental, site-specific or externally


Sometimes it's a matter of priorities. Tony Cooper (no relation) is head of Aldercar school in Nottingham and recently won a teachers' Oscar for secondary school leadership. Aldercar has very small classes - a spending priority established by Mr Cooper and his governors early in his tenure.

The benefits to pupils are obvious, but Mr Cooper strongly believes that smaller classes produce better relationships and less stress on teachers.

Where further incentive is needed, Professor Cooper believes that the expected flood of compensation claims will galvanise heads into action. "We shouldn't need litigation to drive this process," he says, "but the reality is that fear of litigation will probably be the key factor."

Cary Cooper's book "Stress and Employer Liability", co-authored with Jill Earnshaw, is available from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. Tel: 0208 971 9000

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today