Mental health: Reasonable adjustments for school staff

Written by: Amy Sayer | Published:
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What are ‘reasonable adjustments’ for staff struggling with their mental health? Amy Sayer offers her advice for schools


In a previous article for SecEd, I explained how conversations should take place within school to ensure that you genuinely support and help your staff to recover from a period of poor mental health (Sayer, 2020).

In my experience, the worry that many line managers have is that asking a staff member about absence or competency within the classroom due to poor mental health will mean that A) the staff member will have an uncontrollable emotional outburst and have to go home or to the doctors or B) they will somehow make the situation worse by saying the wrong thing.

In reality these two worst-case scenarios are unlikely to happen if you have the conversation in the right place, and it occurs due to a genuine concern and desire to support from a colleague.

The third option, C) the person appreciates you giving them the time to talk openly about their issues in a safe non-judgemental space means that they access the right support which helps them to recover from this period of mental ill health or allows them to recognise the signs of a longer-term problem.


Reasonable adjustments

Once a colleague has begun their recovery through counselling, medication or other lifestyle changes, they may need to have temporary “reasonable adjustments” to allow them to build up their confidence, resilience and reserves. This needs to be discussed directly with the colleague (not via email or a third party) and needs to be reviewed regularly in order to recognise the progress that is being made, or to put further support in place.

In your school, there will need to be a training session with senior leaders to develop a common language and criteria for considering suggestions on how reasonable adjustments can work in practice to give them confidence and consistency.

You need to know that in school all staff are treated fairly and having a set of guidelines which explains what is reasonable and what is not gives leaders clarity and will help develop their confidence when making any adjustments.


Consistency and training

The worst thing that schools can do is have inconsistency of reasonable adjustments as it can breed resentment, ignorance and shame. If a member of staff hears that a colleague has been going home early most days due to their mental health, and others who are struggling have had their line manager tell them, “it’s just how tough the job is, there is nothing we can do, you just have to be more resilient”, then people are going to feel frustrated at the inequality and good teachers could be lost.

There also needs to be the capacity in the leadership team for someone to be the “go-to” person if a new situation occurs with a staff member which is different from the “typical” scenarios that happen in schools. For example, what if a teacher discloses that they have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and will need some reduced hours while their new medication is starting to have an effect?


What reasonable adjustments?

So, what exactly is a reasonable adjustment for mental ill health? If someone is recovering from a period of absence due to a physical illness, the possibility of finishing early for a few days may allow them to build up to teaching a full day once their body is back to normal.

Physical illness and reasonable adjustments are generally more openly discussed among staff and are understood. They are also usually a relatively short-term measure.

Reasonable adjustments for mental health need to follow certain guidelines so that they are reasonable, fair and have equity with those for physical health. However, due to the complex nature of mental health they also need to fit the specific needs of the type of mental ill health condition.

It also depends on how long the condition is likely to affect the member of staff. If they have been formally diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition such as depression, PTSD or generalised anxiety disorder then they will be supported by the Equality Act 2010, which states that an employee cannot be disadvantaged in their workplace due to their disability.

The Mental Health Foundation has created some excellent guidance, which includes advice on what is considered to be “reasonable” and which includes some of the following suggestions (MHF, 2016).

Disruption?

First of all, there must be a consideration as to how much disruption the adjustments could cause. For example, a teacher not teaching their classes can lead to behaviour issues with supply teachers, and potentially a non-subject specialist delivering lessons.

As a short-term adjustment for a teacher who is receiving counselling for depression and who needs time off to attend weekly sessions, this would be reasonable as it will directly affect their recovery and will be time-limited. It shows them you care and want them to continue teaching at your school.

A member of staff being absent due to poor mental health will cost the school more financially and cause more disruption than a well-managed phased return to work. It may be that they are suffering from an episode of anxiety which has been triggered by something in their personal life. It could affect their ability to cope with certain aspects of their role such as big meetings with lots of staff, or meeting parents. These elements of their role may need to be temporarily redistributed among other staff.

Common knowledge?

It is also important that you ask the colleague what you would like to be said about their change in role or hours to other colleagues. Some may be comfortable talking openly about their mental health and feel it is important not to be ashamed. Others may be struggling so much that they will leave it down to you to discuss with key staff members in a professional manner on a need-to-know basis.

Medication

If staff are starting to take medication for their mental health they may be suffering from side effects such as tiredness, headaches, nausea and stomach pains. This may mean that they will need to do reduced hours until their body adapts to the medication. This can take between two to three weeks and again it will be “reasonable” to support a colleague through this period.

Flexible working

It would be reasonable for colleagues to have flexible working and work from home if they have planning time in the morning or afternoons. This would need to be for a limited amount of time, and reviewed at the end of this period.

The trust that you are showing in your colleagues to complete their work in a way that is best for them at this time will mean that they are more likely to feel loyalty in return and give more back to the school community when they have recovered from a period of poor mental health.


Confidence, consistency and clarity

Overall, the key to making reasonable adjustments in schools is confidence, consistency and clarity. All staff whether they are leaders or otherwise need access to a clear policy which give suggestions as to what is reasonable or not.

There also needs to be a “go-to” member of the senior leadership team who staff can meet when they are unsure of how much or what type of support is appropriate to give. This will ensure that there is a healthier culture and ethos surrounding mental health discussions in your school.


  • Amy Sayer is a mental health first-aider and head of religious studies. She been teaching in secondary schools for 12 years and has previously been a mental health lead. Her first book will be out in January 2021 and will be about supporting staff mental health in schools. Read her previous SecEd articles at https://bit.ly/3h1aRpw

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