Out of sight, out of mind? Looking after the welfare of teachers working from home
Teachers are finding it understandably difficult to adapt to remote working.
Before I retrained as a solicitor, I was a teacher for many years so I know how structured and compartmentalised normal working life for teachers can be. I also remember how much I valued the camaraderie of the staff room and those morale-saving chats with colleagues after a difficult day. My friends who are still in the profession admit they have at times felt a bit lost in the new world of socially distanced education.
As employers, academy trusts have a duty to protect the health and safety of all staff. The focus in recent weeks has been on the more obvious health and safety aspects of school re-opening in order to minimise the risks of Covid-19. While many staff will be returning to school in the coming months, a significant number are likely to continue home-working into the next academic year and trusts should not overlook the welfare of these staff, some of whom will have long term health conditions and disabilities.
The health and safety duties of academy trust employers
Academy trusts have a statutory duty to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees as far as is reasonably practicable. This includes duties to assess the risks impacting on staff in their work, to create a safe system of work, to ensure that system is properly implemented, and to have a regular programme of review.
Working from home
Teaching staff who continue to work from home may be working in inappropriate settings, using furniture and equipment which was not designed for prolonged periods of work, and they are likely to be less physically active than they would be during a normal teaching day. All of these will have impact on the physical health of staff.
Easier to overlook can be the impact on mental health of sustained home-working. Some staff are likely to have difficulty separating work and home life, leading to increased risks of stress. Isolation and the lack support networks can mean that the normal strains of teaching life are amplified. There are also the difficulties of juggling child-care with timetabled remote sessions, worries about vulnerable students they can’t contact, anxieties about this year’s exam-grading system, and fears about returning to work before it is safe to do so.
Clearly, trusts have much less control over the teacher’s home environment than over the school environment, and so the measures which are reasonably practicable to protect staff at home will be different. However, there are important steps which can be taken:
- Ask staff to complete their own home-working risk assessments to flag any risks;
- Set up formal systems to make regular contact with staff working from home – video calls are much more likely to help managers to spot signs of stress than phone calls or emails;
- Encourage informal contact outside the line management structure and prioritise team-working;
- Don’t forget about the wellbeing of your line managers and leaders – facilitate peer support;
- Consider the use of specific stress risk-assessments where appropriate;
- Consider reasonable adjustments which might be needed for those with a long term mental or physical health condition;
- Consider putting in place a home-working policy.
Risks of claims
Academy trusts should speak to their insurers to check the extent of cover for particular claims and notify their insurers if there is a risk of a claim being brought.
Claims can be brought where staff allege they have suffered personal injury due to their employer’s breach of its duty of care. Employers should also be aware of the risk of whistleblowing claims where staff have raised concerns about a legal breach. Staff or trade unions could make a report to the Health and Safety Executive.
Staff may allege that their employer failed to put proper safeguards in place for home-working and that this amounts to a breach of trust and confidence, leading to resignation and a constructive dismissal claim.
Discrimination claims may be brought if a staff member believes that they have been less favourably treated because of their protected characteristic. In the current circumstances, claims might include those from disabled employees or women with child-care responsibilities who allege that they are disadvantaged by policies which apply to all staff. Further information on the discrimination risks for employers during the Covid-19 crisis can be found in my previous article, including risks relating to BAME and pregnant staff.
Consultation and communication
Trusts have a duty to consult staff and their representatives on health and safety issues. My colleague Chris Billington discusses the importance of schools working together with trade unions in the current crisis in his recent article.
Reaching out to staff, unions and professional advisers can significantly lower the risks of home-working and lead to healthier and happier staff who are more able to provide the best for their students. This is ultimately what drives trust leaders, not least in these testing times.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Alacoque Marvin or any other member of the Education and Employment team on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors