Protecting schools from workplace stress claims

Harrison Clark Rickerbys Solicitors
November 16, 2023

In this blog post, Jonathan Edwards, Partner, HCR Law and Rhiannon Willimont, Solicitor, HCR Law consider what schools should consider.

Work-related stress in the education sector is high. Recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety, show the sector has the third highest stress levels of any in the UK, only coming behind health and social work and the defence sector.

These findings are consistent with the Department for Education’s data for the 2021/22 academic year, which indicated that almost 40,000 teachers (8.8%) left the profession for reasons other than retirement. The figures also show that just under 25% of teachers leave within 3 years of qualifying.

At an organisational level, workplace stress can lead to reduced productivity, sickness absence, and high turnover of staff, while individually it can expose staff to chronic physical and mental health conditions.

Schools have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety and health of their employees, including their psychological and psychiatric health, and there may be civil and criminal consequences for employers who do not comply with the requisite standards of care.

This article gives an overview of how schools should create supportive environments for staff and protect themselves from workplace stress claims.

 How a claim may arise

From a legal perspective, workplace “stress” is different from workplace “pressure”. The HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”.

With respect to workplace stress, employers are subject to numerous common-law and statutory obligations, including: 

  • The common law duty of care;
  • Express or implied terms of an employment contract;
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974: Employers have a duty to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees;
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: Employers must carry out risk assessments to identify risks, and take measures to control the risks identified;
  • The Working Time Regulations 1998: Employers must adhere to these regulations (unless employees opt-out);
  • The Equality Act 2010: A psychological/psychiatric injury which has a chronic effect on an employee’s ability to work may constitute a “disability” and give rise to certain protections;
  • The Protection of Harassment Act 1997: An employer can be vicariously liable for the offence of harassment if the cause of their stress can be sufficiently connected to their employment.

Where an employee can establish they have suffered workplace stress due to the school’s actions or omissions, they will be entitled to bring a personal injury claim for psychiatric/psychological injury.

In addition to any civil claim which may arise, schools should also be aware of the regulatory risks of failing to protect teachers from workplace stress.

Individual instances of workplace stress do not need to be reported to the HSE. However, where there is evidence of a wider organisational failing, for example multiple instances of work-related stress caused by the school’s breaches of health and safety law, the HSE may decide to investigate.

The HSE’s emphasis in relation to schools is on prevention, however it will take enforcement action where it finds serious breaches of health and safety law. This can include:

  • Unannounced on-site inspections;
  • Serving improvement notices, which require the school to remedy the contravention in a specified time-frame;
  • Serving prohibition notices, which prohibit specific activities from being carried out;
  • For the most serious breaches, prosecution. This can be against the school itself or individuals involved.

What schools need to do

The HSE take a common sense approach to managing health and safety risks in schools. Schools are about providing children with a range of valuable learning experiences, within which, risks should be managed proportionately and sensibly.

Schools often focus on managing risks relating to pupils, however schools also need to manage risks to teachers and other members of staff.

Schools should:

  • Carry out comprehensive risks assessments for their employees, which specifically identify stress as a risk and set out how this risk can be minimised. Risk assessments should be reviewed regularly and after each report of an incident of workplace stress to ensure the risks are being effectively managed.
  • Ensure its safety policies identify workplace stress as a risk and, crucially, that its safety policies are applied in practice.
  • Ensure all staff, including the school’s Leadership Team are aware of the risks of workplace stress and how to manage these risks.

 The latest HSE Education statistics can be found here:

The latest Department for Education statistics can be found here: