Teachers. What would we do without them? They’re arguably some of the most important members of society. They give our kids purpose, set them up for success, and inspire them to do well in life. They are role models, support systems and guidance givers.
Society depends on the endurance and sacrifice of the educational workforce. Yet we only see the surface of what it’s like to be a teacher; a comfortable staff room, great holidays, the gratification of learning and developing the next generation.
But what about the rest of it? The stress and trauma that comes with dealing with bullying and harassment? It’s there, just like in many other workplaces. From verbal abuse to physical assaults by managers, colleagues, parents and even students.
Coupled with other health hazards like work induced stress from long hours, heavy workloads and high expectations, it’s no wonder teachers are increasingly grappling with ill health and out of work.
Whether you’re a teacher or studying to become one, it’s important that you understand teachers’ rights when it comes to injuries in the workplace. In this blog, we discuss the true extent of physical and psychological injuries on teachers, and what you can do about it.
The true extent of physical and psychological injuries on teachers
According to the Queensland Employee Injury Database, teachers commonly experience a range of injuries in the course of their employment.
The most common are muscle and tendon sprains or strains to the back from handling, lifting, carrying and bending down to pick things up. But what’s becoming increasingly disturbing is the increase in instances of the physical abuse, and psychological injuries like anxiety, depression and stress stemming from work pressures and bullying.
Safe Work Australia reports that the country’s Education and Training industry recorded more than 7,500 serious workers’ compensation claims in 2018-19 – an increase of 23 per cent in less than two decades.
In addition, The Courier Mail reported that between July 2020 and February 2021, Department of Education staff received more than $20.8 million in WorkCover entitlements for injuries suffered while on the job.
Though the article also highlighted the fact that teachers had long been underreporting the true scope of physical and psychological stress in schools, which Department of Education spokesman Christian Rowan said had skyrocketed over the last five years; and became worse during the pandemic.
The Queensland Teachers Union president Cresta Richardson added: “Like every single working Queenslander, they should feel safe at work – they should not go to work being fearful that they will be assaulted or abused.”
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying can be harmful to anyone and can ruin lives. It’s defined as “repeated and unreasonable” behaviour towards a person or a group of people that creates a risk to health and safety.
It can include behaviours like ridicule, exclusion, shaming and aggression, and even physical abuse, which can take a heavy toll on a teacher’s confidence and morale.
A survey conducted by La Trobe University found that 70 per cent of teachers claim to have experienced bullying and abuse from students. And 60 per cent have experienced the same treatment from parents. It’s not unheard of for teachers to be physically attacked, or hit, by students either.
It’s often dismissed as just “giving the teachers a hard time” or “teasing”. But despite what you might think, teachers are human beings, and their skin isn’t that thick.
But bullying isn’t the only risk that teachers face when doing their jobs. Data obtained over the last couple of years suggests that teachers can be kicked, hit, spat on, had furniture thrown at them and even stabbed. And that at least one teacher will be subjected to this every day.
During 2019, WorkCover Queensland accepted 291 claims for injuries from assault and other occupational violence from teachers. With 194 school days that year, this equates to 1.5 incidents causing injury every day.
In addition, the Australian Principal Occupation, Health, Safety and Wellbeing survey, which was released in March 2021, indicated that Queensland principals and other leaders “were among the most at-risk of assault in the country”.
This survey showed that 40 per cent of Queensland principals and other leaders were “either physically assaulted or threatened with violence last year”. This is nine times greater than that of the general population.
As a result, Queensland principals reported the highest rates of stress and depressive symptoms in the country.
What to do if you’re being bullied, or assaulted, at work?
Teachers have a right to work in a safe environment. If a school fails to ensure this, it becomes a breach of its duty of care. So, what can teachers do if they’re being bullied, or harassed at work?
Consider reporting the person responsible and making a complaint. If you have done this, and nothing has happened, we recommend seeking legal advice from an employment lawyer.
What about if teachers have been injured or suffered physical or psychological issues because of work?
Every teacher has entitlements to compensation for lost wages, medical bills, and rehabilitation costs whether the injury sustained was physical or psychological – just like all other workers.
Generally, it can be easier for claims for physical injuries to be accepted. This is because for a psychological condition to be accepted it must not be the result of reasonable management action. However, this should not dissuade you from making a claim.
But first things first, if you’ve suffered an injury seek medical advice. Our advice is to document everything, and if it’s affecting you to the point it’s impacting your work capacity as well as your home life, consider lodging a claim for workers’ compensation through WorkCover Queensland and seek legal advice.
The Department of Education have lots of resources to help teachers through injury management, rehabilitation, WorkCover or Total and Permanent Disability claims. Schools are actually legislatively required to help their staff through the process, and in fact most schools have trained Rehabilitation and Return to Work Coordinators who are responsible for helping facilitate appropriate rehab services.