Stress fractures the workplace;School Management;Briefing

18th September 1998 at 01:00
If your staff are on the verge of nervous breakdowns beware. You could be seeing them soon in court. Phil Revell reports.

We all have to learn to cope with stress at some time in our lives. But how do you deal with employees cracking under the pressure of work? And what are the management implications now that stress can be cited as an industrial injury?

Last month, the Health and Safety Executive announced that employers who drive their staff to nervous breakdowns are just as culpable as those whose employees are physically injured because the workplace is dangerous.

One hundred million days are lost annually in Britain through stress-related illness - it causes 60 per cent of all absence. A TUC survey last year reported teaching to be one of the most stressful occupations and the recent action about workloads by teaching unions demonstrated that it is a serious concern.

Guidelines are being sent this month to thousands of British companies reminding them of their responsibilities for protecting staff from work-related stress. "It's your duty in law to make sure that your employees aren't made ill by their work," the guidelines say. "Don't be tempted to think that firing someone provides an easy way out. If you don't act reasonably in dismissing an employee, they could claim unfair dismissal."

For many years employers in the United States have faced legal action resulting from stress at work - what they call "cumulative trauma". What has become known as the John Walker case shows how English law can allow stressed employees here to take employers to court.

John Walker was a social worker employed by Northumberland County Council. Over 12 months the pressures of his work caused him to have two nervous breakdowns. Before they occurred Mr Walker had complained about his workload, but nothing appeared to indicate that he was cracking up under the strain or that, as a social worker, he was particularly at risk. After the first episode he was promised extra help by his employer - extra help which, 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 for this: 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 County Council could not be held liable for Mr Walker's first nervous breakdown, only the second.

Mr Walker successfully showed his breakdowns to be the result of workplace stress. But it can be difficult to show a distinction from pressures outside work, which could explain why there has not been a flood of claims. "We've tried," says Paul Blake, the National Union of Teachers' regional officer. "But it was a very particular judgment."

Employers need to treat stressed employees carefully. Personnel consultant Gareth James, who runs stress management courses for the Institute of Personnel Development, argues that the vital element of the Walker judgment was that it treated physical and mental health in the same way. "This wasn't new law," he says, "but existing law applied to mental health."

Gareth James feels that employers should see stress as an occupational health issue, assessing the risks just as they would for any other aspect of employment.

"The first action should be to make a risk assessment, then to take what action is necessary to minimise those risks." Ask people what situations and factors cause undue stress. Actions to reduce stress could include training, awareness strategies and counselling services.

Gareth James says it is important to realise that factors that may lead to stress are individual. Time management is a classic example: some thrive on imminent deadlines; others need to be able to plan well in advance.

In the US "employee assistance programmes" offering workplace counselling have mushroomed - 60 per cent of big companies provide some form of counselling. In Britain some local authorities have similar programmes. Sheffield's occupational health service offers stress services, including a worker specifically for schools, and Wolverhampton is about to set up a similar system.

Schemes set up to identify and deal with workplace stress can have the side-effect of providing evidence for any future action. An employee who has a breakdown will be able to show that his employer could "reasonably have foreseen" the circumstances.

However, headteachers and governors should consider their legal position. Since 1993 there has been an explicit requirement under health and safety law to carry out risk assessments to reduce the possibility of harm or injury in the workplace. To fail to do so is a criminal offence.

Paul Blake believes that it is not a matter of what the law requires. "So much of this comes down to good management," he says. "Despite stressful working conditions, a lot of teachers don't suffer from stress-related illnesses because they are managed in a sympathetic way. But sometimes the pressures result in good management techniques being thrown out of the window."

Gareth James says: "Counselling services are remedial actions. Stress management is about good management, full stop. If the real issue is that the employee can't cope, then the employer has to face up to that. Sooner or later redundancy has to be considered as one of the options."

* For details on Institute of Personnel Development courses, tel 0181 263 3434.

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