Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Hidden Ill

There are days when the blogs have to be written, where the ideas are mounding up!

I'm assuming, if you are reading this, you're a lovely person with the wellbeing of their staff at heart. You are the Head who sent the flowers, who knows when someone has had an accident and broken something, who is trying their best to reduce the demands so their staff can have a work-life balance. You put things in a caring, human, way rather than ticking lines off a policy.  And this is great. The education world needs more of you.  But I wonder, have you noticed the Hidden Ill? Those staff who aren't toting crutches and bandages but inhalers, testing needles, painkillers? The ones whose immune systems are attacking them from the inside out? The ones who go home every night and cry because they can no longer manage their job but see no noble way out? The ones who don't want to make a fuss and just want to get on with things? 

How are you supposed to know they exist? What can you do to help? 

First off, a disclaimer, (as the days of Usenet used to say) I am not a lawyer. I can write from personal experience (with a happy ending) in the hope that another teacher can use this information to make their lives a little easier.  If you are a Head, you employ lawyers, if you are a (sensible) teacher, you are a member of a Union and they are great at advising.

The staff I am concerned about here are the ones that could fall under the Equality Act 2010, they are defined as "disabled"  That word possibly brings to mind certain images, certainly not hidden illness. However, a whole pile of people fall into this category:

"You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities." (Useful gov.uk site)

Some illnesses are automatically covered (cancer to name a sadly common one) and some might be included depending on the severity (ME/CFS, asthma, arthritis, heart disease, mental health conditions) Many schools have an Occupational Health Service who might be able to advise, plus the member of staff's medical team will often write if the illness, in their opinion, would come under the Act.

I think a school should know if a member of staff falls into this category. As you can see, most of these illnesses cannot be seen, so it relies on a great relationship between a named senior member of staff and the rest of the school. Remember, the majority of people just want to get on with their job.  Someone might also choose to declare one of these illnesses when they move to a new job - this is great - there is a lump of money out there to help the new employer and employee.

If someone is covered by the Act then the school has to make "reasonable adjustments" to help (I suspect the school should do this even if the staff member isn't covered?). This might be by providing a larger PC monitor, a crate to wheel books around (rather than carrying them and making a sore back worse), a special keyboard for someone with arthritis, rest breaks, somewhere quiet to sit... It needn't be expensive. And it's a win-win - the member of staff's wellbeing is good, they are in work, the pupils have their teacher, you have a member of staff on your side.

Adjustments might, however, be outside the tight school budget and this is where Access to Work can help.  They provide money for equipment to help people get into work or stay in work. They can also pay for fares on public transport and in some cases pay for an extra person to help you do your job for a period of time.

I've used the system and it was pretty easy. I rang the number on the website and gave them my NI number and a brief outline of my illness. I got a case number and within a week someone (Neil) had called me back to discuss what I might need. At that stage I didn't know so they arranged for someone, with the same illness as myself, to come to school and do a workplace assessment. She looked at all the places I worked, discussed the adjustments I already had and came up with some ideas that no-one had thought of before.  She priced everything up and wrote a report. Once school had ordered the equipment, there was a short form to complete, invoices to attach, and the money was sent straight to school. If at any point I got stuck, I had the direct number for Neil and he was happy to clarify things, email documents and so on to help. I ended up with a great desk chair, identical to the ones the Met Office routinely have, that reduced my pain and fatigue (and so increased my wellbeing)

One of the little known things is that you can go back and ask for more equipment if things change at a later date, e.g. eyesight worsens or another hand starts to suffer with arthritis. This makes it worth applying for as a sort of insurance.

So, the Hidden Ill. As a Head, do you know who they are? Are you doing what you can? Did you even know you should be and that there was money to help you?

A final thing, The Education Support Partnership, once known as the Teacher Support Network. They've realised that a lot of great teachers are trying to leave teaching because of the workload and stress. As well as raising awareness they have a 24-7 helpline for school staff with counsellors who can talk you through things and links to financial advise and legal advise if you're not with a Union (Seriously, join a Union).  If anything in this blog sounds familiar then give them a call and ask for some advice. 

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