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At the chalkface

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if we were better resourced, the level of stress among staff would be reduced.”

Stress is the top OHS risk for educators and the key to managing it lies in the powerful trifecta of strong leadership, well-trained reps and adequate resourcing. AMY PURTON-LONG reports.


NTERNATIONAL Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28 is historically a time to remember those who have died as a result of work. But this year’s theme, ‘Strong laws, strong enforcement, strong unions’, reminds us that it’s also a time to fight for safer workplaces. For educators, this means fighting against stress. A 2015 Monash University survey of AEU members found that 55% reported suffering a stress or mental health issue, with the top two causes being work pressure and increasing workload. AEU Victoria OHS organiser Janet Marshall says that it’s important to take stress as seriously as other OHS risks. “We might not have the same level of physical injury or fatality in teaching as in other industries, but our workers are injured in long-lasting ways, and often psychologically,” Janet explains. “Class sizes, insecure employment and lack of resources aren’t just OHS issues but also industrial and educational issues, with impacts on student outcomes and teachers’ psychological health.” WorkSafe Victoria says that in order to reduce workload stress, employers must resource workplaces properly, including adequate staffing. This places Gonski funding squarely in the realm of OHS. If the Federal Liberal Government turns its back on Gonski, Victorian schools stand to lose $1.1 billion in funding in 2018-19 that could have provided additional teachers; CRTs; literacy and numeracy specialists; education support staff. Without Gonski, teachers face bigger classes; inadequate support; more grade-splitting; more shortterm contracts; more stress. Eltham High principal Vincent Sicari


AEU NEWS VOL 22 | ISSUE 3 | MAY 2016

says resource shortfalls have definitely had an impact on stress at his school. “If we got the Gonski funding we were promised, we wouldn’t just have one special education teacher, we’d have three, and they’d be able to assist in the classroom,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if we were better resourced, the level of stress among staff would be reduced.” But even without Gonski, there are things schools can do to combat staff stress. At Eltham High there are weekly yoga classes and walking groups, a personal coaching program and a community wellbeing and support coordinator. OHS resources can be found in the staffroom and bathrooms, and Vincent actively encourages staff to report stress-related incidents on Edusafe. He also believes it’s essential that staff feel comfortable to speak up about stress. “People will often suffer in silence, but we try to build a culture where staff know that there are a range of people around the school they can speak to, including school leadership, the wellbeing coordinator and the HSR.” Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) are vital in the fight against stress. They represent the rights of the staff, and work with principals to ensure schools follow their obligations under the OHS Act. Janet Marshall says that HSRs make a tangible difference to safety in schools. “Schools have significant protections under the Act, but you need a trained HSR to activate them. The AEU offers training, support and networking opportunities to help HSRs do this.” Vivien Slatter, HSR and AEU rep at Melton Specialist School, says that to be a good HSR, you need to take a holistic approach.

“You have to be a good listener and have good people skills,” she explains. “But you’ve also got to be an activist and advocate for the rights of your colleagues, and it’s vital to have a good relationship with your principal.” Vincent Sicari believes that because HSRs are at the “chalkface”, they can pick up on staff stress early and help leadership take action. “The crucial importance of the HSR is to be the person who understands the climate of the school, because no principal wants to be dealing with something at the point where stress becomes distress,” Vincent says. “We want to be proactive in fighting stress and HSRs can help us do that.”

To find out more about the role of HSRs, visit



Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) represent the rights of the worker

HSRs represent the employer

HSRs may inspect the workplace or accompany WorkSafe on an inspection HSRs may issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) to the employer HSRs have the right to take time off work for OHS training HSRs can order a cease-work in the event of an immediate threat

HSRs are legally liable for OHS incidents

HSRs are responsible for organising repairs and removing hazards

AEU News Issue 3 May 2015  

The magazine for AEU Victorian Branch members, Issue 3, May 2016.

AEU News Issue 3 May 2015  

The magazine for AEU Victorian Branch members, Issue 3, May 2016.