As a school leader, it is important to ensure that your school is a great place to work, with a happy and healthy workforce and low levels of sick leave.

Stress is one of the biggest workplace health issues at work.  The true extent of stress-related problems is largely hidden because very few people are prepared to admit that they are suffering from stress, or to seek help.  It is difficult for those who have not experienced depression, anxiety and despair, which often accompany stress, to fully appreciate the effect stress can have on people’s lives and on the lives of their families.   


Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research has found that one in five people – an estimated 5 million workers – is ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed at work, and that stress, anxiety and depression nationally lead to more than 11 and a half million lost working days each year.  The International Labour Organisation has estimated that the cost of stress to the British economy amounts to over ten per cent of its Gross National Product (GNP).   
Studies into the extent of work-related stress in Britain have consistently found that school staff are amongst the most stressed workers in Britain. HSE statistics for the years 2010/11 – 2016/17 show that education is consistently one of the 3 occupations experiencing the highest levels of work related stress.  
It is not surprising, therefore, that every year teachers and support staff become ill through work-related stress.  This is, at least in part, due to constant changes and turbulence in the school sector, arising from fundamental policy changes in delivery, school structures and funding.  It is an issue facing all staff in the school community.  Significantly, many conscientious and respected teachers are unable to keep up with the impossible demands placed on them, and either choose to leave the profession, or are forced to do so.  

The Government and Ofsted position seems to be that if teachers – whether leadership or classroom teachers – are placed under enough pressure, this will raise standards in schools.  Indeed Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Head of Ofsted, is on record as saying ‘If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right’.  This culture has to change.  School leaders are not to blame but they do have a role to play in protecting their staff.  This guide aims to support you in this task. 
In 2014 UNISON carried out a survey of school office staff.  It aimed to monitor workplace issues and improve UNISON’s understanding of working life in schools today.  With 2350 responses, the findings provided comprehensive data on this staff group.  Staff frequently said that they enjoyed working in the school environment but were struggling to cope with excessive pressures.

 It is notable that 84 per cent stated that work related stress was a major concern.  This reflects the complex environment in which support staff work, where they have to deal with an increasing workload, low pay, concerns about job security, poor or no CPD, managing challenging behaviour and dealing with pupils’ health needs. 

What is good mental health? 

Good mental health is not simply the absence of diagnosable mental health problems, although good mental health is likely to help protect against development of many such problems.  Good mental health is characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil a number of key functions and activities, including: 

  • the ability to learn;
  • the ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions;
  • ability to form and maintain good relationships with others; and
  • the ability to cope with, and manage, change and uncertainty. 

Good mental health is about positive well-being, about feeling in control of one’s life, valued at home and at work, and generally relaxed and positive. 

What types of mental health conditions can be caused by stress?

Stress caused by excessive workload, pupil behaviour, poor communication and conflict at work, often unrecognised and unaddressed, can lead to mental illness.  Anxiety, depression, withdrawal, poor concentration, insomnia, low self-esteem, increased dependency on drugs and alcohol and deteriorating personal relationships may result. 

What types of mental health conditions can be caused by stress?

Stress caused by excessive workload, pupil behaviour, poor communication and conflict at work, often unrecognised and unaddressed, can lead to mental illness. Anxiety, depression, withdrawal, poor concentration, insomnia, low self-esteem, increased dependency on drugs and alcohol and deteriorating personal relationships may result.

The role of school leaders

As a school leader, with responsibility for deploying and managing all staff at your school, and for maintaining a reasonable balance for each member of staff between work and life outside school, you will want to ensure, so far as it is within your power, that your staff remain happy and healthy. They are, after all, your most important resource.

People who experience wellbeing in the workplace perform well and are therefore more effective in their roles. Schools with large numbers of stressed, demoralised and anxious staff are not able to function efficiently. The educational experience of young people depends upon the effectiveness of teachers and support staff and their effectiveness depends upon their wellbeing.

Acting to reduce levels of stress within your school will lead to less short and long-term sick leave which will, in turn, reduce pressures on other colleagues as well as benefiting pupils. School leaders are, of course, no less vulnerable to mental health conditions than any other teachers.

The NEU and other education unions recognise this fact. In many cases – workload, league tables, appraisal, inspection and other elements of excessive accountability – the pressures on leadership staff are even more acute.

As a head teacher you must have regard for your own health and well-being, for your own good, and that of those around you. It should also be borne in mind that head teachers who exhibit signs of stress, can frequently pass this on to staff in school, who can in turn suffer stress related symptoms as a result.

As a school leader you have a duty of care to exercise in seeking to safeguard the mental wellbeing of your staff. This relates to preventing problems arising in the first place, but also assisting those who do become ill to make a full recovery and return to work. Assisting those who become ill may involve adjustments to the workplace to allow an easy return.

What can you do to support the staff in your school generally?

You are not expected to counsel staff yourself or provide medical advice. Separate sections below deal with the support available from occupational health services, the Education Support Partnership and trade unions when teachers and support staff do experience mental health conditions.

Your role, and that of the governing body, should focus on providing the right sort of work environment, so as to minimise the risk of staff experiencing work-related mental ill health. The establishment of a school safety committee provides a useful forum for discussions about strategies to reduce stress levels among staff. Many employers have drawn up policies on tackling stress in schools.

How you can help support your staff:

• Address the stigma of mental health conditions

One of the first problems you will face in tackling this issue is the stigma attached to it. It is important for staff to know that management is aware of the pressures they face and that there is no shame attached to admitting that there is a problem. It is not a sign of weakness to report that certain aspects of school life, for example pupil behaviour or workload, are having a negative effect on one’s wellbeing. If you take a sensitive, yet not intrusive, interest in the personal lives of your staff and are aware of different personalities, you will probably notice when a member of staff behaves out of character, even if that person does not approach you. If you think that a member of staff may have a mental health condition you could try speaking with them in order to seek to persuade them to see their GP. The most important thing is to let them know that you are there to help and provide support, not to judge them or make them do anything they feel uncomfortable about. Remember also that it is lawful for staff to choose not to disclose their mental health status.

Detailed information about disclosure of mental health conditions both at the recruitment stage and during employment is set out in Appendix 3. Encouraging staff to discuss problems with sympathetic colleagues and with you will raise the profile of the issue and help reduce feelings of isolation. Early, non-judgemental, intervention is essential in order to protect future health and career prospects. The earlier someone seeks help, the more likely it is that they will get effective help and make a full recovery to lead a happy and fulfilled life again. This does, however, involve much more than telling people to ‘pull themselves together’.

• Undertake a stress risk assessment

When assessing stress levels in a workplace it is essential to undertake a stress risk assessment. There may not be obvious signs of stress or even work-related mental ill-health amongst your staff so a risk assessment exercise can help provide you with accurate information about stress levels in your school. Please see Appendix 1 for a simple guide on how to undertake stress risk assessments. Supporting members of staff with mental health conditions You will want to help those individuals who have been traumatised or distressed at work recover and regain their well-being. If they are covered by the Equality Act 2010 definition of disability (see Appendix 2) then you have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments where a policy, practice, procedure or feature of the school premises places the disabled worker at a disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled workers.

Reasonable adjustments can include, but are not limited to:

  • making adjustments to school premises;
  • allocating some of the disabled person’s duties to another person;
  • transferring the employee to fill an existing vacancy;
  • altering hours of working;
  • allowing the employee to be absent during working hours for rehabilitation, assessment or treatment;
  • arranging training or mentoring;
  • acquiring or modifying equipment.

It is good practice to make adjustments that are ‘reasonable’ for all staff with mental health conditions, whether or not they may be covered by the Equality Act.

In assessing the reasonableness of an adjustment, you are entitled to take the following considerations into account:

  • the extent to which it is practicable to make the adjustment;
  • the financial and other costs of making the adjustment and the extent of any disruption;
  • the extent of the governing body’s financial and other resources;
  • the availability of financial or other assistance, for example, from the employer;
  • the size of the school;
  • the extent to which making the adjustment would remove the disadvantage complained of.

The list is not exhaustive and there may be other circumstances that are relevant. Once you have considered what appropriate and reasonable adjustments could be made in the circumstances, you may take one or more of the following additional steps:

Put the colleague in touch with appropriate outside agencies (a list is attached at Appendix 4). This of course includes their trade union and for teachers, the Education Support Partnership.

  • Ask the colleague about what adjustments they believe will enable them to continue to work or assist their return to work.
  • Refer colleagues to occupational health services or welfare support services, where appropriate, and also encourage self-referrals. This must be presented as a supportive, not punitive, gesture which will enable the person to access the support they need to recover. This could include a programme of behavioural therapy or counselling.
  • Develop a caring strategy for staff members returning to work, including following any advice given by occupational health professionals, considering what reasonable adjustments might be made and, if necessary, negotiating changes to work patterns.
  • Ensure that work-related factors which led to the mental health condition have been addressed, so that illness does not recur. This is probably the most long term issue to address, as it may involve consideration of whole school policy and practice such as pupil behaviour, bullying or workload.
  • Ensure that your school’s equalities policy, which is required by law for every school, covers steps for encouraging staff to disclose their disability status and training staff on the implications of the Equality Act and the rights granted to staff in this legislation. The legislation introduced general and specific duties to promote disability equality across all school functions. This requires schools to be proactive about how they mainstream disability equality to ensure that disability equality is built into everything they do. Schools need to take account of disabled people when making decisions on developing policy and involvement with the trade unions should be encouraged when developing policies to meet the requirements of the public sector equality duty.

The general duty requires that a school should have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful disability discrimination and harassment;
  • advance equality of opportunity and positive attitudes towards disabled people;
  • foster good relations between people with a disability and those without.

The role of occupational health

Teachers’ conditions of service (the terms of the Burgundy Book) provide that ‘in the case of prolonged or frequent absence, the teacher undertakes any examination that the employer may require by an approved medial practitioner nominated by them’. Teachers do not have to pay for this examination and should be informed that they have the right to be accompanied at such an examination by their own doctor.

Occupational health has been given little profile and has rarely been an issue which employers have seen as important. This may be because it lacks the immediacy of safety issues and therefore is often given less priority than the removal of hazards. Yet occupational health schemes can have a major effect in preventing ill health through work and in ensuring that people are able to return to work as early as possible.

The NEU believes that the role of occupational health services should be viewed in a positive light. Where a member of staff has been on sick leave with a mental health condition, particularly where this is known to be work-related, it is important that that person receives support from a medical professional who understands the nature of teaching/working as a member of the support staff as an occupation, who can organise appropriate treatment but also make recommendations as to how that person’s eventual return to work should be managed. 

The role of occupational health services is advisory only. It is up to the relevant manager to accept or decline the advice offered. The NEU would, however, advise its school leader members to consider very carefully before deciding not to take account of advice offered.

You may believe that some members of staff may be developing mental health conditions, perhaps because changes in their behaviour give rise to health and safety concerns. Even if no sick leave has been taken, it may be appropriate to encourage individuals in this situation to request a referral to occupational health or to ask the person concerned what support they would find useful. Clearly such situations need to be handled in a sensitive way.

You should be aware that it is common for people suffering from mental health conditions to react badly, perhaps irrationally, to what may appear to you to be a perfectly reasonable question or sensitively phrased advice. This is not your fault, but it is something for which you should prepare yourself. Remaining patient and calm at all times is essential.

When you do decide to refer a member of staff to the employer’s medical adviser, speak to them about your decision first, as this will provide you with an opportunity to explain the referral process and the reasons behind your decision to make the referral. Try to bear in mind their likely fragile state in any written communications. Sensitive use of language is essential. Advise the member of staff that they will be asked to provide written consent to allow the medial adviser to access medical information from their own GP. You will not see that information for reasons of medical confidentiality. The unions advise their members to co-operate with such requests. You will need to provide detailed information to the medial adviser including details of the individual’s duties and why you believe that the absences may be work-related.

Once the medical adviser has met with the person concerned, a report will be sent to the employer’s Human Resources Department which will normally incorporate the following points:

  • when a person is likely to be fit to return to work;
  • whether the person is covered by the Equality Act;
  • what the employer can do to facilitate recovery and a return to work, for example, administrative support;
  • whether redeployment or other adjustments should be considered;
  • whether the cause of the absence is work related or not.

Ill-health retirement

Some staff may not recover sufficiently to be able to return to their job. In these cases, they may be entitled to ill-health benefits under the relevant pension scheme. The Occupational Health Service will be able to advise staff on the application process and they can also obtain advice and guidance from their teacher or support staff organisation. As indicated above, before taking any steps including drawing staff’s attention to possible ill-health retirement, head teachers are advised to consult and take advice from their personnel or human resources department.

Barriers to accessing support

Many staff are unaware that their employer runs, or contracts, an occupational health service. School leaders can help in this respect by letting staff know what support is available by putting up posters on notice boards and/or inviting service providers into school to promote the services which are available and help allay fears about occupational health being automatically linked with absence management and discipline.

The Equality Act

The Equality Act 2010 places a legal duty on employers not to discriminate against members of staff and to make reasonable adjustments where the school’s policies, practices, procedures or premises place a disabled member of staff at a disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled staff. School leaders do not have the same legal duty as an employer but you do have a delegated management role in implementing reasonable adjustments as recommended by the Occupational Health Service and the HR department.

To assist staff with mental health conditions you should

  • provide the person concerned with some information about the sort of adjustments that might help them, and suggest they seek advice from a Union representative;
  • provide them with basic information about their rights under the Equality Act, for example from the union or TUC websites;
  • if you are unclear whether someone is covered by the Equality Act, assume that they does have rights under the Act and them move onto discussions about what reasonable adjustments might support that individual, after taking appropriate advice from your Personnel or Human Resources department.

Sickness absence monitoring

Positive sickness absence policies can help to pinpoint work-related issues such as health and safety risks, stress and bullying. They can tackle those organisational issues that can give rise to absence and provide support to promote staff attendance through positive interventions, which can have a significant effect on reducing absence. They must be linked to return to work policies and rehabilitation policies.

 Download guide

Preventing work related mental health guide

This guide is designed to help you as a school leader ensure that your school is a great place to work, with a happy and healthy workforce and low levels of sick leave. This in turn is bound to improve the educational outcomes of your pupils.


Download appendix 1 - 4 

Appendix 1 - to this guide shows how to do this in a straightforward way, which fully involves your staff. Adopting this approach will help ensure that you meet your obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, as well as the Equality Act 2010. The guide also advises on how to support those members of staff who do develop mental health conditions linked to their work, highlighting legal duties but also practical support measures, in terms of reasonable adjustments.

Appendix 2 - for a list of common mental health conditions

Appendix 3 - for the legal position in respect of disclosure of mental health conditions

Appendix 4 - for a list of organisations that can offer mental health support for your staff, should they need it.