In brief - Schools in Victoria must also identify and manage psychological hazards at work

Key takeaways

  • Schools have a duty to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, which includes both physical and psychological health.

  • Hazards to the health of school employees can include bullying and stress due to workloads.

  • Non-government schools should be alert to the fact that WorkSafe inspectors can seek entry to schools to audit compliance with obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (VIC) in the area of psychological hazards. 

  • Legal advice should be sought if potential breaches of health and safety laws are anticipated or identified. 

Schools are no strangers to mental health issues. Teaching is amongst the most stressful of all professions. This is unsurprising given that schools are highly complex, regulated places, usually with a large workforce and stakeholders that include children, teachers, unions and parents. 

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey recently held that “work related stress was higher in education than across all other industries”, and that Principals and Deputy Principals experiencing high levels of emotional conflict at work results in high levels of burnout and stress.

Hazards in schools include stress, bullying and psychiatric injury 

Bullying and stress associated with teaching workloads are not uncommon hazards in schools. 

In 2014, Dr Mark Thompson, a well-respected Principal of Eltham Primary School, sadly took his own life after a parent accused him of discriminating against their child. At the time, he was suffering from workplace stress and working up to seven days a week. The widow of Dr Thompson subsequently made a Workcover dependents compensation claim on the basis that workplace stress contributed to her husband’s death.

In another case, the Supreme Court decision of Doulis v State of Victoria [2014] VSC 395, a Victorian teacher at Werribee Secondary College was awarded $1.27 million in damages after suffering a mental breakdown and chronic severe depression due to the allocation of an unduly heavy workload of “feral classes”. The teacher had complained to the Principal and two Assistant Principals on a series of occasions and requested a reduction in the number of classes, but his complaints “fell on deaf ears”. 

The Supreme Court held in Doulis that it should have been reasonably foreseeable to the school that the teacher might suffer a psychiatric injury because of the continued allocation of difficult classes. In failing to act, the school breached its duty to take reasonable care to avoid the injury occurring.

WorkSafe's investigative powers and schools' obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act

WorkSafe Victoria has the power to investigate the psychological health of workers in the non-government education sector. Previous campaigns of this nature by WorkSafe have focussed on ensuring private education workplaces have systems in place to protect and respond to events impacting the psychological health of workers. 

All schools will be aware of the primary statutory obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide and maintain for employees of the school, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. The definition of “health” includes “psychological health”, as well as physical health. 

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2021.

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