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Teacher assaults principal - tribunal condemns employer for not providing better mental health support

Investing in your employees' mental health is crucial to improving workplace productivity.

Offering support to employees showing signs of mental illness or psychological problems is good management. It helps an employer meet their legal obligations under workplace law as well as helping employees to become productive team members by dealing with their underlying issues.

 

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A recent unfair dismissal case before the Industrial Commissions of New South Wales highlights the importance of employers offering mental health support to employees showing signs of suffering from mental illness and psychological conditions.

In the case, the employee worked as a special needs teacher at a public school. The teacher commenced employment with the school in January 2010. In June 2010, the teacher was placed on an informal improvement plan to improve their workplace performance. The teacher's performance improved and no further action was taken.

In March 2013, due to a number of concerns about the teacher's conduct it was determined that the employee should be placed on a Formal Teacher Improvement Plan

The principal asserted in evidence that the classroom appeared untidy and disorganised, that parents had raised some minor concerns about the level of rigour in the classroom, and that he was concerned with the lack of programmed activity, individual learning plans and class management.

Furthermore, the teacher had allegedly “lost” children and left dangerous objects such as a stanley knife and teacher scissors lying around for children to pick up. The teacher denied this and submitted that being assigned to the Teacher Improvement Program was a form of disciplinary bullying.

This program did not commence as the teacher assaulted the school principal in March 2013.

As a result of the assault, the employee was placed on alternative duties pending the outcome of Local Court proceedings. The employee subsequently submitted a workers compensation claim for depression in relation to alleged incidents of bullying. This claim was declined by the Workers Compensation Insurer in May 2013.

The employee was officially dismissed on the 28th January 2014. The teacher was convicted of common assault under Section 61 of the Crimes Act 1900, which carries a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment.

The Tribunal upheld the dismissal but found the teacher should have had access to better mental health support from his employer.

The Deputy President noted that the teacher apparently had serious mental health and psychological problems and it was "regrettable that early intervention in respect to aberrant behaviour on a medical basis was not available", adding that if there is a policy or procedure for this to occur, it was not evident in this matter.

The Deputy President found that the school principal had sought departmental assistance, but had been "left to deal with the matter as a managerial and disciplinary issue" without any practical support.

He said it was reasonable to view both the teacher and principal as "victims of the situation", with evidence showing that the principal tried to assist the teacher, who saw every attempt as "an act of persecution and bullying".

The Deputy President said the dismissed teacher either refused or was unable to acknowledge that it is not bullying to require teachers to conform to school dress standards and conduct policies, and to meet teaching standards.

He said being required to apply departmental policy in teaching special needs children and adhere to the directions of the principal is also not bullying.

The Deputy President said there was insufficient evidence of mitigating circumstances to alter his conclusion that "physical violence in the workplace is a most serious offence warranting termination of employment”.

While the teacher's termination was upheld in this instance, such a costly and time consuming legal dispute may have been avoided had the employer intervened early to identify some of the possible underlying causes of the teacher's underperformance and effectively managed the employee.

Such a dispute would have been disruptive for the employer as valuable time and resources would have been devoted to resolving this dispute rather than focusing on achieving educational outcomes. Examples include time away from work to attend tribunal hearings and legal appointments. Significant time would have also been spent preparing for the proceedings. Such a dispute is also damaging to team morale and the reputation of the school.

iHR believes that prevention is the best cure and it is important that managers work with employees to establish the underlying causes of underperformance and avoid costly and time-consuming court action. Managers need to look for early indicators of mental illness and effectively manage staff who are showing signs of mental illness while adhering to their legal responsibilities. iHR offers face to face training in mental health management to assist employers in managing their legal requirements when encountering mental illness in the workplace. In addition, iHR's sister company World Learning Hub offer a range of online programs to help both managers and employees in dealing with mental ill-health in the workplace. To find out more, please contact 1300 884 687 or submit an online enquiry today.

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