Stamp out this despair

15th July 2005 at 01:00
More teachers contact helplines over bullying than any other professionals, writes Suzanne Nantcurvis

Workplace bullying helplines in the UK record that by far the largest group of workers to contact them is teachers. Evidence collected by these agencies suggests that workplace bullying is a serious issue in teaching.

This is shameful.

As a lay officer for the NASUWT, the second-biggest teaching union, I have dealt with several cases of adult bullying and have seen the enormous damage it can do to individuals, families and the work environment. In 2004, the NASUWT conducted a survey of members on the prevalence of workplace bullying. More than half of the respondents in primary schools and 44 per cent in secondaries considered bullying incidents to be frequent.

Although many schools have adopted anti-bullying policies, these are often unused. Part of the problem is that there is no recourse to an independent panel. These matters are dealt with by governing bodies and, more often than not, there is anxiety that support will be given to the bully rather than the victim, given that the bully is often more senior in the school.

The fear of reprisals leads victims to suffer in silence rather than seek help.

There is no legislation that directly addresses bullying at work. We know that it is illegal under a variety of laws, including harassment, health and safety and discrimination. But as all the evidence points to this problem being on the increase, there is a case for further legislation such as a revival of the Dignity at Work Bill, which would force employers to actually deal with the problem. There is a duty of care placed on the employer, but sadly it is often neglected with this type of issue.

Each case of workplace bullying is different, but some common experiences have b-een revealed. For example, constant trivial nit-picking and destructive criticism, refusal to value or acknowledge performance and achievements, intimidation using comments or threats about job security, being shouted at, being set impossible deadlines, verbal and non-verbal threats, areas of responsibility being removed without consultation, innumerable memos, and violence to people and property.

There are many myths surrounding bullying, including the perception that strong management gets the job done. With target-setting now commonplace as schools are under ever-increasing pressure to deliver improved results, there is the argument that these features in our system have led to increased harassment.

But bullying is bad management. It leads to a work environment where threat, coercion and blame are part of the culture and the inevitable consequence is a demoralised and disaffected workforce.

The cost of this is immense. It goes beyond the obvious billions of pounds lost through sickness absence, and the millions of working days lost annually through bullying, and includes the costs of grievance procedures, employment tribunals, the employment of other personnel and court actions.

However, the cost to individuals and their families must be the focus of our concerns. I have been saddened by the impact that bullies' despicable actions have had on our members. I have witnessed more than one excellent teacher being driven to a physical and mental breakdown.

In a recent public case brought by the General Teaching Council for Wales, a teacher described her horrendous experiences of workplace bullying.

Although the GTCW suspended her headteacher, the case took an inordinate amount of time to conclude because of the reluctance of the governing body to respond to the complaints. I believe this woman's physical and emotional health suffered as a result of the bullying.

The problem is there are local education authorities and governing bodies who will not fully accept their responsibility to show duty of care to their staff. In some cases there seems to be a reluctance to take disciplinary action, even though the case may be proven.

In 1996, the NASUWT published advice on confronting workplace bullies. The fact that No Place to Hide is still on our publications list says it all.

As a profession, we have made little progress with this problem. Yet we cannot continue to ignore the fact that it drains our institutions of valuable human and financial resources. Government legislation is needed to remove this cancer from our workplace.

Yes, all employers must have anti-bullying policies in place. But they must do more than write them and keep them on the shelf. They must monitor the incidence of workplace bullying and take disciplinary action in proven cases. Failure to do so condones bullying. There should be no place to hide for the perpetrators.

Suzanne Nantcurvis is the NASUWT's national executive member for north Wales

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