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2nd March 2011

Suffolk teachers take almost 10,000 days off with stress

Recently, Suffolk County Council revealed that 190 teachers from the area took a total of 9,774 sick days in 2010 where stress was the cause (Source Teacher Support Network).  So what does this tell us?

The first thing to notice is that the 190 teachers concerned had an average stress-related absence of 51.5 days (over 20 weeks).  This suggests that only the long term absences are included.  Because so many functions are now delegated by local authorities to individual schools, reasons for short term absence are probably not collected by Suffolk C.C. even though they are the employer and have overall responsibility for Health and Safety.

Readers may be surprised to know that many local authorities do not collect any data about reasons for absence. I give some credit to Suffolk for collecting and releasing the data.  They have taken a first step towards tackling stress.

It is also the case that many teachers taking short time off, because of stress, report the cause as being a physical ailment because of the stigma attached to mental illness.  They are often aided in this practice by GPs who may be happy to specify alternative reasons on medical certificates.  GPs are well intentioned in doing this for worried patients who think a ‘stress’ certificate might influence future career prospects. They probably have good grounds for worry.

So the reported position in Suffolk is probably only the tip of the iceberg.  The true stress absence rates are likely to be much higher.

So, how do local authorities respond to data of this kind?  Worryingly, a common reaction is not to look at reducing the cause of stress, but to impose punitive absence monitoring policies which can add to stress levels and make matters worse.  

The best way of reducing stress-related absence is to examine what causes stress for teachers and plan to remove or reduce the causes. The only way to do this is to ask teachers, but it is vital that the method of collecting this information allows teachers to be honest.  The process of identifying the stress hazards and planning to reduce risk is a Stress Risk Assessment.  All employers have a legal duty to assess risks to employee health. No one can pretend that stress does not put teacher health at risk.

It is surprising, therefore, that the vast majority of schools do not conduct stress risk assessment. Even more worrying is that many local authorities, who are the employer of teachers, don’t make sure that stress risk assessment is happening or that head teachers have the skills to manage the process.

One final point of concern here is that once a teacher has an extended stress-related absence schools are often reluctant to allow them to return to work before the teacher has been assessed by an occupational health practitioner.  Because most councils have long waiting lists for appointments with occupational health this can take weeks.  So, significant absence can become even longer, often making the return to work even more difficult.

The cost of such extended absence is high and investment in occupational health services could more than pay for itself in reducing the days lost.

Good local authorities (and school governors where the local authority is not the employer) will:

  Collect data about stress-related illness.

Set up systems for schools to identify stress hazards that teachers are confident to use. (On-line questionnaires are a good way of doing this).

Make sure all schools conduct stress risk assessments including plans to remove or reduce stress hazards.

Make sure that senior staff have the skills to manage this process by providing appropriate training.

  Provide good guidance on tackling stress.