The extent of the pandemic's economic impact is becoming clear, with independent schools' attention often understandably focused on ensuring commercial stability. However, the human impact of coronavirus...
...and the different ways it can affect employees' lives should not be overlooked.
What Are Your Legal Responsibilities?
The duty to safeguard employee mental health can be found both in common law and in legislation. As employers, schools are under a basic common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. This duty is reflected in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which contains a general obligation to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all staff. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also require employers to carry out risk assessments to identify, assess and control workplace risks.
Governors of charitable schools also have a general duty to safeguard all those that come into contact with a charity and protect them from harm, which does of course include its staff.
In addition, the Equality Act 2010 contains specific protection against discrimination for individuals who are considered disabled in law. Individuals suffering from mental health issues will be considered disabled if they are suffering from a physical or mental impairment with a long-term, substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out their normal day-to-day activities. When an employee is considered disabled in law due to a mental health condition and is at a substantial disadvantage compared to other staff, the school will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help that individual remain in, or return to, work.
In preparation for the new academic year, schools will have carried out their coronavirus risk assessments and will have consulted with staff in order to formulate bespoke action plans. Risk assessments and action plans should be kept under regular review and where individual circumstances impacting on an employee's physical or mental health are identified, it is sensible to also carry out an individual risk assessment which may help identify appropriate adjustments.
Maintaining an Open and Supportive Environment
The academic year is now underway. However, the pandemic is far from over. The Prime Minister has reinstated governmental advice to work from home where possible. Whilst this advice does not apply to schools, staff may understandably be feeling anxious about their personal position. Individual experiences and worries during the pandemic are likely to vary greatly from person to person, and a major challenge for schools is to maintain an open and supportive working environment where staff are encouraged to share concerns and experiences.
Your school might benefit from existing pastoral support, for example a telephone counselling line available through a benefits provider. If so, it is sensible to make staff aware of the services already available to them so that best use can be made of these. Some schools may choose to develop a specific 'wellbeing policy' which sets out all available support as well as other means by which the school supports staff mental health.
Sadly, some staff may suffer bereavement, or experience a close family member becoming severely ill during the pandemic. If your school has a compassionate leave policy this should also be brought to staff attention, alongside any other bereavement support the school can offer.
ACAS has issued a guide to coronavirus and mental health at work, which suggests it might also be appropriate to arrange mental health training for managers and staff, and to appoint mental health 'champions' staff can talk to.
Practical Steps Schools Can Take to Support Staff Mental Health
There are a number of practical steps that can be taken by schools to support staff mental health, including:
- encouraging communication within an open environment, and keeping in touch with all staff effectively, including those who are working remotely or furloughed (if applicable)
- ensuring all necessary risk assessments are complete and kept under regular review
- ensuring managers have up-to-date training on supporting staff mental health, including on how to identify and escalate a possible mental health issue in a member of their team
- publicising what mental health support is available and how this can be accessed, including following the ACAS guidance on mental health and coronavirus, and updating staff on action taken as a result
- considering whether to appoint mental health champions to support and assist staff who are struggling
- reviewing relevant policies and procedures (including any wellbeing policy, sickness absence policy and/or compassionate leave policy), ensuring these are in line with current law and best practice and that all staff are aware of them
- keeping contemporaneous records of individual conversations where relevant, and seeking expert medical advice where a mental health issue is confirmed or suspected
- considering reasonable adjustments where appropriate, taking medical advice on these and maintaining open dialogue with any member of staff who is suffering with a mental health issue
- supporting an affected staff member's return to work after a period of absence, for example by accommodating a phased return to work and/or agreed adjustments
As the pandemic continues, much remains unknown about what the coming months may hold for schools across the country. Remaining alert to mental health concerns and how these can be managed will help you protect your school's position as much as possible in these uncertain times.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.