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HEADTEACHER Update - Employee Assistance Programmes by Brian Taylor

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A career in education can be one of the most rewarding, but it can also be one of the most challenging and stressful.

A relentless inspection regime and a culture of target-setting is damaging teachers' mental health with many reporting stress and exhaustion, according to an Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey last year. At the same time, the ATL reported more and more teachers are complaining of "unacceptable workloads" and insufficient support from schools over "challenging parents".

These are all conditions which can affect the mental health of staff, often leading to exhaustion, anxiety and stress. Indeed, as the report from the ATL states, many teachers are afraid to tell their employers due to the stigma attached to mental health issues. Where else can they turn?

Stress in the workplace is a topic that organisations are increasingly tackling, but having a truly effective set of solutions takes time and energy, luxuries that most schools do not have.

In June, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published new guidelines entitled Workplace Policy and Management Practices to Improve the Health and Wellbeing of Employees. The aims are to explore the positive and negative effects an organisation's culture can have on people's health and wellbeing, promote leadership that supports the health and wellbeing of employees and help line managers achieve this and strengthen their role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees.

Among the recommendations NICE makes is to have a support base in place for all teaching staff and to make health and wellbeing a core priority for senior management.

They also recommend training heads of departments to recognise when a colleague has an issue, how to approach it and how to support their colleague effectively, as they are essentially the bridge between staff and senior management.

Another recommendation is that staff should be encouraged to engage with employee organisations whenever possible, including trade unions and employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

EAPs can be an effective extension of an organisation's HR team for offering a confidential service for employees should they need qualified professional advice or indeed just someone to talk to.

However, all too often EAPs can be brought in and then just left on the shelf gathering dust. Staff should be encouraged to use the EAP by promoting it within mandatory training, return-to work meetings, disciplinary procedures and appraisals. It can also be integrated into existing health and wellbeing strategies.

It isn't just teachers affected by stress. Senior management and headteachers are regularly confronted with difficult situations, yet they often forget that programmes like EAPs are there to help them too.

There needs to be support at a senior level so that teachers, teaching assistants, year heads and departmental heads feel they have a team behind them who won't leave them to face situations alone.

The NICE guidelines also recommend implementing policies on dignity and respect, preventing harassment and bullying, preventing gender discrimination, tolerance for ethnic or religious diversity and encouraging healthy behaviours. This is not just relevant for interactions between colleagues but something that needs to be implemented between pupils, their parents and teachers too.

All staff should feel that they have the school behind them if any difficult situations arise. We all know that some pupils can be particularly challenging, but how does your school cope when parents are involved too? In these cases a strong support network is essential, be that a colleague or an impartial advisor through your EAP.

All organisations should be paying attention to the NICE guidelines. People working in education are placed in demanding roles and need a support system in place. If that system includes a supportive colleague, an empathetic line-manager, an understanding headteacher and a confidential phone number, it all supports employee health and wellbeing. Take the time to read through the full recommendations available on the NICE website and think about what your school can do to encourage a happier and healthier workforce.

EAPs in action

Loughborough Endowed Schools, an umbrella organisation for Loughborough Grammar School, Loughborough High School and Fairfield Preparatory School, secured an EAP programme two years ago.

HR manager Norma Stubbs says it is a great source of help for employees who encounter problems at work, in the home and other areas of life, and their families can use it too. The EAP helpline and counselling services are there for all staff across the board, including the headteachers, teaching and support staff.

Ms Stubbs said: "Our EAP is proving both useful and popular. We get a number of staff asking for extra copies of the monthly EAP newsletter for themselves or a colleague. It shows all the services on offer and areas where they can get extra help and support. People can turn to the EAP when they do not really know how to tackle the problem themselves.

"In other cases, the person who needs support may not even acknowledge or be aware that there is a problem. Then the management in the school can point them to the EAP. It is entirely up to them whether they choose to try that source of help."

Ms Stubbs says the EAP is also a useful tool in increasing awareness among colleagues that help is at hand and staff encourage each other to take up those opportunities, whether the issue is relatively simple or more complex. The EAP also provides monthly health bulletins that follow a specific topic each month. 

Brian Taylor is head of EAP, clinical and wellbeing for Health Matters UK.

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