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Crazy about work

3rd December 2007

by Lesley Summerland

John Illingworth is a brave man. He's gone public on an issue impacting on the working and personal lives of vast numbers of teachers.

At the 2006 National Conference, John received an emotional standing ovation when he delivered a candid  account of his personal experience of work related stress while Head Teacher of Bentinck Primary and Nursery School in Nottingham. He told Conference that he emphatically believed that stress and government bullying had caused him to become so mentally ill he was forced to quit teaching - and his medical advisors agreed with him. Thus ended a professional role he had succeeded in for thirty years.

At our meeting, he discussed how he had researched the issue. His research showed that the current culture in schools led to bullying of teachers perceived as being culpable for weak pupil performance, or those prepared to raise complaints about work related stress.

The stigma of mental ill-health

He argued that a crucial route to changing this is for both teachers and doctors to be explicit and truthful when recording a reason for absence. Historically, due to the stigma attached to mental health issues, stress related illness has been otherwise described on sick notes. This allows employers to evade their legal obligation to address the causes of that stress. One in three teachers is likely to suffer mental health problems as the direct consequence of work related stress, so the import of this is undeniable.

He explained that the National College for School Leadership appears to virtually by-pass the issue.  To compound this, whereas the profession has rightly paid considerable attention to eradicating pupil bullying, there may be a complicit tolerance of the bullying of teachers who are stressed by their work. The DCSF of course refused to discuss John's research with him.

Unlike the DCFS, the medical profession has wised up to the health consequences wrought by the demands on professional teachers. Members should therefore be confident that if they need to approach a GP it is likely to win a sympathetic response.

Health & Safety Executive

The HSE has produced a new guide 'Tackling Work-related Stress: A Manager's Guide to Improving and Maintaining Employee Health and Well-being.' The guide concentrates on what employers should be doing about work-related stress and offers a great deal of advice on how to undertake a stress risk assessment. It also looks at what employers can do to help care for employees already suffering from stress.

John put forward a powerful argument for us approaching this issue in a collective way, so that individuals cannot be 'picked off' in schools with an intimidating managerial style. However, it's important we also strongly support those headteachers seeking effective strategies to support staff and minimise work related  stress. Jane Rudon was able to offer encouraging examples of such from within Leicester City LEA.

Members should keep in mind that it's not simply workload that drives work related stress. Research on stress shows that control of workload appears a key issue. This is of particular concern given the continued erosion of our right to control and exercise our own professional judgement as classroom teachers, combined with a rise in the inherently stressful focus on judging and measuring our performance.

This was John's 52nd address on this issue since Conference 2006, evidence of the need for a high profile professional focus on this debilitating risk to our health and well-being. 

Members who believe that they have been subjected to bullying at work, or who require advice and support through a period of work related stress, should contact the local NUT office.


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