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Mental Health Charter

This charter, including a model policy, is intended as a focal point around which staff and school/college leaders may collectively develop tools and strategies specific to their needs and aimed at reducing stress.



What is well-being?

Well-being is one of those phrases which we intuitively understand but may struggle to define. When asked what they thought it meant, some members said it’s “a healthy balance of family, work, rest and social/leisure life.” Others said it’s “a lack of anxiety and a feeling of confidence, contentment and security.” Whatever well-being means to you, most of us sense the absence of it and may describe ourselves as overwhelmed, anxious or stressed when it is absent.

Why is the NEU promoting a mental health charter?

All workload surveys reveal the extent to which demands on the profession and working practices in schools are either causing or contributing to the mental ill-health of school and college staff. Ninety per cent (90 per cent) of teachers surveyed by the union said they were considering leaving the profession because of workload and stress. This is an issue which needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Mental ill-health is not an inevitable part of working life. The mental health charter is intended as a focal point around which staff and school/college leaders may collectively develop tools and strategies specific to their needs and aimed at reducing stress. The charter seeks to ensure that the well-being of staff is reflected in the culture, organisation and management of your school or college.

Shouldn’t pupils, and not the staff, be at the centre of everything we do?

Research shows that workplaces which have an adverse effect on the mental well-being of workers suffer, among other things, from poorer quality output, lower productivity, higher levels of absence and lower morale. Schools and colleges which make the mental well-being of staff a central feature of their culture, organisation and management are far more likely to deliver the educational outcomes that children deserve.

Remember our working environment is our pupils’ learning environment.

How do we ensure that the well-being of staff is central to what we do?

It is often the case that anything that is not measured and/or monitored in the workplace is ignored. This probably explains why the well-being of school and college staff is often the furthest from the minds of decision makers. For good mental health to play a central role in the ethos of your school or college it must be embedded in relevant policies and practices. These policies and practices must also be monitored and evaluated to see how well they are being implemented. Throughout this document are examples of policies and practices which may require review to safeguard the well-being of school and college staff.

What does the charter say?

There are six overarching principles contained in the charter, which are discussed in detail at Section 1 of this document.

Overarching principles

There are six overarching principles contained in this charter. They are:

A safe workplace

This principle encompasses both physical safety and dignity at work. It requires schools and colleges to monitor, assess and mitigate the risk to staff arising from:

  • working practices
  • violence or the threat of violence
  • harassment
  • bullying by colleagues and management
  • pressure from Ofsted/Estyn
  • pressure from local government
  • pressure from central Government

Working practices

There are various laws which impose on employers a legal duty to ensure that staff are doing their work in a safe way. They include, but are not limited to

The NEU has produced guidance relating to safe working practices in schools and colleges.

Violence, harassment and bullying

Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to provide a safe place of work. An environment in which violence, the threat of violence, harassment and/or bullying is habitual is not a safe

environment in which to work. Teachers and other school staff will feel safe at work only if they are confident that management and/or the employer will deal effectively with their concerns. Assuming they have not done so already, school and college leaders should be asked to take the following steps:

  • A zero-tolerance approach to violence and the threat of violence against staff. This approach should be reflected in the school/college’s pupil behaviour policy, disciplinary policy and any policies pertaining to the conduct of parents. The concept of zero tolerance should be practised as well as championed on paper.
  • Inform the governing body of the number of reported incidents of violence, bullying and harassment against staff each year and provide the governing body with ideas for reducing the number of such incidents. Consult the recognised trade unions.
  • Adopt a dignity at work policy or include a dignity at work section in an existing policy document (e.g. the disciplinary policy).
  • Conduct an anonymous survey of staff at least once a year to determine whether those who have experienced harassment/bullying in the workplace are reluctant to report the same for fear of victimisation. The survey may form part of an annual stress risk assessment.

The NEU has produced guidance relating to the management of bullying and harassment in a school/college setting.

Pressures external to school/college

The Government’s Workload Challenge consultation revealed the extent to which the volume of initiatives from central and local government, as well as Ofsted/Estyn, is contributing to unmanageable workloads and consequently to mental health conditions. Sometimes the excessive demands on staff arise because of the way school/college leaders interpret these initiatives and give effect to them.

In other cases, the initiatives themselves give rise to increasing workload because they do not allow sufficient time for new policies and practices to be learnt and embedded in the organisation. In a safe workplace, changes to teaching practice arising from such initiatives are managed, whenever possible, over a reasonable timescale and without adding to overall work demands. Ideally, new tasks should be introduced only after old ones are discontinued.

It is understandable that some school and college leaders feel there is little that can be done to protect staff from the constant onslaught of initiatives from external sources. No one can doubt the immense pressure on headteachers/principals and their staff to produce consistently outstanding results in the face of ever greater challenges. However, there are steps, some more obvious than others, which school/college leaders can take to protect their own mental well-being as well as that of their staff:

  • Whenever working practices must change, explain the reasons why to staff.
  • Invite suggestions about better ways of working, perhaps by introducing a suggestions box. Staff meetings are not always the best forum in which to elicit ideas. School/college leaders should not only consider the proposals they receive – they should also be seen to consider them.
  • Divide new areas of work which must be done as a matter of law from those which are merely recommended as good practice. Recommendations may be embedded only when there is capacity to do so or circumstances demand it.
  • Consider whether staff are currently doing work which does not need to be done or is already being done elsewhere. They should consult heads of department, curriculum leaders and union representatives, where appropriate.
  • They should ask heads of department to collectively review their systems for process driven work (e.g. marking, target setting, writing reports, lesson planning). Are their systems unnecessarily burdensome? Are they producing the outcomes they want? Refer to NEU workload guidance.
  • Discuss better ways of working with other school/college leaders in their area and consider whether certain tasks may be better accomplished by sharing or pooling resources with other schools/colleges.

Support from colleagues (including managers)

This principle encompasses both professional and personal support from colleagues. All colleagues, not just line managers, have a role to play in contributing to each other’s well-being at work. It is well to remember the adage “no one is an island”. We all need to feel that our colleagues value the work we do and the contributions we make to the workplace, just as we value them.

Clashes in personality, different perceptions, bullying, prejudice and competitiveness may not always make that possible, but it is the role of school/college leaders and governing bodies to provide a shared vision for the school/college in which every member of staff takes individual and collective responsibility. Below are some suggested steps to building a more collegiate working environment:

  • Try not to take each other for granted. A favour, no matter how small, should always be acknowledged.
  • If a colleague takes time out of their busy day to listen to your concerns, be prepared to lend an ear when they need to talk.
  • Where good work is the result of group effort, acknowledge everyone who contributed.
  • Try to engage in small-talk whenever a normally bubbly colleague appears downcast or moody.
  • Be supportive of colleagues who are experiencing or have experienced ill-health, particularly hidden illnesses.
  • Share important work-related information with all relevant colleagues and not just with friends. Selective information sharing can exclude individuals and act as a barrier to effective working.

Below are some specific steps for line managers to consider:

  • Promote open dialogue and involve staff in decision making.
  • Ensure good, clear communication and develop trust.
  • Encourage peer support and buddy systems (e.g. health and wellbeing buddies).
  • Discourage working in isolation – group working should be the norm.
  • Encourage colleagues to respect diversity at work.
  • Encourage colleagues to set realistic expectations of themselves and others.
  • Arrange regular catch-ups with those you line manage and use them as an opportunity to normalise conversations about mental health.
  • Ask colleagues who appear to be struggling whether they want direct support. Don’t wait to be approached.
  • Ensure that colleagues who struggle to cope at work have early access to occupational health services.
  • Modify performance management practices (e.g. stop learning walks and drop-ins) where a colleague has been, or is, experiencing ill-health.
  • If someone you line manage tells you they are stressed, or that they cannot undertake additional duties, do not reply by making a direct comparison between their workload – or their workload as you perceive it – and that of other colleagues. It takes a lot of courage for some people to admit to stress and your obligation to that person under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act is not met by dismissing their disclosure or by telling them to pull themselves together.
  • Treat people as individuals. Change your management style to suit the needs of the staff member and the task.
  • Think about what those you line manage need from you rather than just what you need from them.

For more advice on how to support colleagues with invisible impairments refer to the TUC guidance document “You don’t look disabled…..”.

Fair and equal treatment

The very large majority of people can detect from words, body language and atmosphere when they are being judged based on prejudiced assumptions rather than on individual merit. Staff from disadvantaged groups (e.g. women, Black, LGBT+, disabled staff) are aware of what it means to be in a minority (or in the case of women, a disempowered majority) in ways which members of the dominant majority group cannot easily understand. They know when they are not being given a fair deal.

The principle of fair and equal treatment does not contain the expectation that schools, and colleges will be places free of conscious or unconscious bias. That would be an undeliverable goal. Instead, school and college leaders are asked to be live to the issue of conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace, their effect on disadvantaged groups and the steps which may be taken to mitigate them.

The NEU has produced guidance relating to equality, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Clear procedures, roles and responsibilities

This principle is intended to highlight the importance of clear procedures, roles and responsibilities as a necessary part of mitigating conflict in the workplace. This principle should work together with the principle of support from colleagues.

School and college leaders should:

  • Remember that they have a duty to consult employees on the policies and practices of the workplace.
  • Seek to ensure that every staff member understands the part that other staff members play (consider developing an organisational flowchart for the staff bulletin board or staff handbook).
  • Have a clear definition of roles and responsibilities where possible.
  • Seek to ensure that individuals are not overloaded with responsibility.
  • Where areas of work and responsibility overlap, seek to ensure that individuals are clear about who should take the lead.
  • Seek to ensure that staff members are asked to undertake only those roles and responsibilities they have the skills, training or experience to undertake.
  • Seek to ensure that where two or more managers direct or influence the work of a colleague, those managers keep each other regularly informed of the tasks they have delegated to avoid overloading an individual with work or creating conflicting expectations.
  • Recognise that teachers expect to exercise professional autonomy in the workplace. Allow them to use their judgement and initiative.
  • Provide staff members with a revised job description when their roles and responsibilities change materially.

Personal and social time

This principle recognises that for most of us, work is a place in which to socialise and foster personal, as well as professional relationships with our colleagues. A school or college devoid of such interaction can be a very isolating and consequently stressful place in which to work. Schools and colleges should also be places where individuals are not discouraged from working flexibly (e.g. part-time and job sharing).

The Government White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ says: “schools should be leading in this area, offering equal opportunities for all and modelling these values for children and young people.” School and college leaders should:

  • create a space (if they have not already done so) in which staff members may socialise during breaks, share ideas, hold meetings, discuss projects, catch-up with personal emails, arrange medical appointments etc.;
  • discourage a culture in which staff members regularly forgo lunch breaks / eat lunch at their desks or undertake an unequal share of break duties;
  • keep track of the hours staff are working. In this context there should be acknowledgement and consideration given to the non-academic role performed by teachers, often exercised at times when they should be on break;
  • accommodate flexible working;
  • ensure that directed time is clearly defined in teachers’ contracts and that an annual directed time calendar is provided in advance of the beginning of each academic year;
  • provide teachers with the option to use at least one of their INSET days to develop personal as well as professional interests;
  • where possible, provide staff with “down-time” or lighter duties after a particularly stressful period of work (e.g. after Ofsted/Estyn inspection);
  • consider introducing a ‘family day’, which is paid leave once a year to enable staff to spend time with family during term time.

The NEU has produced guidance relating to flexible working in schools and colleges.

The following documents are also available:

Work/life balance model policy and checklist

Stress risk assessments

This principle emphasises the importance of monitoring levels of stress in the workplace and reviewing its effects on the workforce. Persistently high levels of pressure can lead to distress, exhaustion, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as: "The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work." It is counter-productive and not only impacts on the mental and physical wellbeing of school/college staff, but also impacts on the school/college by affecting job performance and productivity, not to mention the financial costs of covering sick leave and recruiting replacement staff.

School and college leaders should be encouraged to build processes in the workplace which assist in the detection of both individual and organisational stress. There are many diagnostic tools available for this purpose.

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