Hazards banner
       Hazards, number 140, 2017
Unravelling - UCU union helps vindicate stressed-out college lecturer
Art lecturer Kate Rawnsley knew a succession of maddening management decisions were pushing her to the verge of a breakdown. She tells Hazards editor Rory O’Neill how college bosses denied repeatedly responsibility for her symptoms. But their ‘totally dehumanising’ behaviour would be exposed in court.

 

It was a plum job not long out of college. Like acclaimed artists David Hockney and Andy Goldsworthy before her, Kate Rawnsley was a graduate of Bradford College – and now she had a job there.

A temporary contract in 1992 teaching art and design was made permanent two years later. “I loved it. I had very supportive managers, lots of resources. I looked forward to going to work every day,” recalls Kate.

The students “weren’t your usual, straight-out-of-school intake. They were from very difficult and chaotic backgrounds – alcoholics, broken homes. Some expelled from school. Ex-prisoners.”

Many had no qualifications. But it worked. “Around 80 per cent of the level zero group went on to do a degree, many getting top grades. There’s a good few PhDs now.”  Some followed in Kate’s steps and became art lecturers themselves.

“One was a Kurdish refugee, a tailor. He now works in the field," says Kate, 58.
“I always loved the students. I never had a problem.”

The beginning of the end

Kate, an accomplished artist in her own right whose work featured in a joint exhibition with acclaimed Royal Academician Norman Adams, was settled in a job at which she excelled. And the college knew it. One senior manager described her work as ‘brilliant’ and ‘fantastic’.  Her sickness record was good and she had a unblemished disciplinary record.



HIGH ANXIETY ‘Moderate to extreme’ anxiety and depression among workers in the UK has hit a record high with 1 in 10 workers now affected. The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) says rates of moderate to extreme anxiety and depression among employees have soared by 30.5 per cent since records began in 2013. NHS figures show nearly a third of fit notes issued by GPs are now for psychiatric problems. [more]

It was only in 2005, when she returned from maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, Freya, that things started to go seriously wrong.

“A member of staff on the same grade bullied me – it got strange and nasty. She was hypercritical of my paperwork, and complained about me to managers.” When the woman took unauthorised absence from work – she would not turn up but only tell Kate, not managers, she was off – it left Kate carrying the can.

After a few months, management agreed to separate the workers. This was, though, only a temporary reprieve. When in 2009 a new manager insisted Kate had to work with the bully, the consequences were quick and concerning. “I had a panic attack in the office.

They sent me to occupational health who said I mustn’t work with her again. They confirmed I’d been suffering from stress and anxiety.”

Depressed, struggling to sleep and having to care for a young child, Kate says she opted to go part-time in 2010. She could not afford the pay cut, but felt compelled to cut her hours “to survive.”

Room for improvement

Events in 2010 and 2011 would bring Kate’s teaching career to a premature and painful end.

Wholly unsuitable classroom conditions were a new and acute source of stress from 2010 onwards. At first, Kate found herself teaching in the Lilac Room. Temperature control was impossible. The room was scorching in summer, with students recording temperatures on their iPhones in excess of 90 degrees. In winter, Kate and her students worked in coats, hats and gloves. Repeated discussions with programme manager Nathan Kelly brought promises of improvements, but these never materialised.

Then in the summer term of 2011, Kate was instructed by Kelly her course would be relocated that September. “The room was a corridor made of thin MDF, at the end of the degree studio.”



NO ACCOMMODATION  Kate said her meetings with programme manager Nathan Kelly over unsuitable classrooms ‘usually ended in tears’. Things came to a head when Kate was told her desk had been thrown in the waste skip.

Crammed with students, art and equipment, there wasn’t room to step back and view work in progress. Previously, students had made ‘honking big sculptures’, a college safety officer had observed. This would be impossible in the new room.

“I told the students they’d have to work in miniature,” says Kate. “I created a brief for students that involved making art inside a suitcase. Then they could take their work home at the end of the day.”

On 5 July 2011, Kate wrote a polite but clear email to the college dean, David Smith, to notify him that the protracted accommodation problems were affecting her health. The email, two months prior to the planned move, was the start of a paper trail that proved crucial.

“Hi, sorry to be a bother, but the rooming issue is causing me a great deal of stress as it did last year, could you have a word with Nathan. I just need some reassurances…. I would be so grateful, and can stop worrying and start sleeping again, thanks, Kate.”

An email response the next day from David Smith, said Nathan Kelly would be discussing an ‘eminently sensible’ proposal with Kate. “There really is no reason to lose sleep over this!”, he reassured her.

But “lots of meetings” with Kelly over accommodation “usually ended in tears, I find the man intimidating and aggressive,” Kate told occupational health in an email later that year. And the proposal would have left Kate working in the same area as the co-worker from whom she had earlier been separated, and whose behaviour had caused Kate so much distress.

Kate’s 21 July 2011 response reminded the dean “I became very ill and had to visit Rita in occupational health. She assessed the situation and wrote a report that I will forward to you, that explains that I should not work in proximity to this person, and she states that if that were to happen she predicts that I would be off with stress.”

Smith did not act on the emails. At the start of the new term, the relocation went ahead.

“There were no windows, just roof lights, and double doors at either end with people walking through,” says Kate. The students also complained of feeling ‘cut-off’ in the 10-foot wide makeshift classroom. In a house, you’d call it the box room.

The room was a third the size of the Lilac Room, and the poor build quality meant it was hard to hear or be heard, a problem Kate, who suffers from hearing loss, found particularly troubling.



HE MAN  Dean of higher education David Smith failed to act on Kate’s two ‘cry for help’ emails. A judge said his behaviour was ‘remarkably cavalier.’

Kate’s students were mostly from troubled backgrounds and new to higher education; they weren’t at this stage independent learners. She had to teach, and they had to be able to hear what she said. “After a day’s teaching I had a terrible sore throat and awful headaches, because I was having to strain my voice to be heard,” Kate told managers including Smith.

Other management decisions compounded Kate’s problems. A sessional worker who shared the workload was ‘reallocated’ without warning and not replaced. He subsequently suffered his own work stress-related breakdown, and left the college. He wasn’t alone – Kate compiled a list of eight in the department she believed had left because of stress.

Then Kate discovered her desk had gone. She was told it had been put in the skip.

Kate had had enough.

End of course

By the end of October 2011, Kate was too sick with work-related stress to return to the college, and was signed off sick.

A case conference was scheduled for 20 March 2012, attended by Kate and her UCU union rep, senior managers David Smith and Nathan Kelly and members of the college’s human relations, safety and occupational health staff.

Because of her hearing difficulties, Kate had got permission from occupational health ahead of the meeting to record proceedings, so she could playback any parts she had found unclear.

Initially the case conference discussion concentrated on facts – the accommodation, its suitability, the specific needs of the students – but at points Kate’s account was questioned, the dean stating other staff had not complained. Kate responded that her highly successful and previously well subscribed course was now losing students.

“I know that I came to this meeting with the thought of a realistic outcome that we’ve something positive to go on, but in my heart of hearts I know… that my voice is never heard, and I know my voice is not being heard now.

“And it just breaks my heart. All I’ve ever wanted was to teach art and to take people from quite impoverished backgrounds, to put them into a degree and for them to get great grades.” She said after 20 years working at the college “you’ve tried to railroad me into this situation and it’s made me ill and it’s had a dramatic effect on my family, on my little girl, on everything.

“I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do about this at all because, it’s… it’s really, really made me very, very poorly, I just feel totally undervalued.”

CASE CLOSED A voice recording of the case conference makes plain Kate’s concerns and her management’s disregard for these concerns.

It was at that point, says Kate, “I had a panic attack. I was shaking all over in the middle of the meeting, in tears. Because they wouldn’t listen to me.” She fled the room, leaving behind her belongs, including her voice recorder. It was still running.

The conversation that followed was later played and replayed in court. It showed, in the words of Kate’s shocked barrister, how the college had ‘totally dehumanised’ her. College dean David Smith said what had happened was a “classic example of what Kate plays here.”

She wasn’t upset. She was manipulative.

Judgment day

By now, Kate had started a stress compensation claim and a grievance about the room, both with the support of her union UCU. Concerned about a lack of progress on her complaints, Kate submitted a ‘subject access request’ (SAR) – essentially a freedom of information trawl – for all the correspondence relating to the case.

Emails surrendered in the subject access request stunned Kate. David Smith and Kate Oldale, the vice-principal considering the grievance, appeared to be discussing how to deal with Kate’s complaint.


COLLEGE FAILURE  “I went through the wringer,” says art lecturer Kate Rawnsley. “I became suicidal at times, I cried at work a lot. I’d worked so hard and been treated so badly.”


In a witness statement, Kate notes that in one email exchange dated 31 May 2012, David Smith “sought to portray my refusals to change my contract as an act of inflexibility. It stated that I ‘was running the show’ and wasn’t flexible.”

Kate’s statement adds that Oldale, “who was investigating my complaint of bullying and harassment, appeared to agree with DS in her email 31 May 2012. These emails only came to my attention as a result of my SAR. This dialogue took part behind the scenes and showed to me how David Smith was able to create a characterisation of me that I did not get to challenge and do not recognise.”

“It was a complete stitch-up,” says Kate.

She believes a process that was supposed to be considering her grievance was instead channelling her towards the ‘capability’ procedure and from there to dismissal on health grounds. “No workplace adjustments had been offered to me,” she notes in the witness statement.



PRINCIPAL PROBLEM College vice-principal Kath Oldale investigated Kate’s grievance about her working conditions. Kate says private emails she obtained led her to worry the process was a ‘complete stitch-up’.

Kate never returned to work. In June 2013, a confidential settlement was agreed and her contract was terminated. There was, though, a ‘compromise agreement’, which meant Kate was free to continue her stress compensation claim with UCU support. It would be a long haul, as the college continued to deny liability. It was March 2017 before the case came before Bradford County Court.

Uncontested medical evidence presented to the trial confirmed Kate was suffering from a ‘mixed anxiety and depressive order’. Legal arguments centred on the ‘foreseeability’ of Kate’s working conditions causing or exacerbating her health problems and whether factors outside work might be responsible.

“Lawyers for Bradford College interrogated me for one and a half days,” says Kate, trying to pin the cause of her mental health problems on anything but the job. She was quizzed about her ‘really messy’ divorce, although she has never divorced. Her husband, Vik Waluda, from whom she has been separated for years but who she never got round to divorcing and who remains a close friend, had accompanied her to two related medical assessments by forensic psychologists. Vik, who stood and waved to the court, had taken time off work to support Kate throughout the hearing. His help meant Kate’s current partner, Ben, could look after Freya, now 13.

It was Kate’s assiduous recordkeeping – the email paper trail and the voice recording of the case conference - that closed the deal.

“David Smith had told the court he had never observed me being visibly upset or crying except at the case conference,” recalls Kate.

The voice recording told a different story. It confirmed Kate was plainly upset and sobbing as she left the case conference, and that Smith characterised this as ‘classic’ Kate behaviour. Smith was unable to explain the discrepancies to the judge. And Kate’s 5 July 2011 email to Smith had given clear notice of the effect that the unresolved problems were having on her health.

Criticising the ‘callous’ managers, the trial judge noted “it was harder to think of a clearer notification of an impending risk to mental health not drafted by a lawyer or a psychiatrist.”

The dean has not acted on emails sent by Kate and had not taken her pleas about her debilitating health concerns seriously. The judge observed that this was a “remarkably cavalier response to clear signposts.” He found that the dean “believed that she was crying wolf to try to achieve her aim of not moving room.”

Kate was awarded £159,000 in damages. “It was those two emails, without them I didn’t have a case.”

Vindicated

“I went through the wringer,” says Kate, recalling the repeated refusal of college management act on her complaints that her working conditions were bad for her health and bad for her students.

“I couldn’t sleep, I still have problems. I became suicidal at times. I cried at work a lot. I’d worked so hard and been treated so badly. I was terrified of going to work. Terrified of my managers. I didn’t know what they were going to do next. I was on antidepressants until a month after I won the case.”

And now? “I still struggle, but I feel vindicated. I am glad it went to court. I feel believed.”

Kate is “very grateful to UCU. They’ve been so supportive. Everyone should be a member of a union. You’ve no idea what is around the corner, and you need that assurance. You insure your car, your house. You should insure your work life.”

 

 


HAVING A LAUGH Launching the ‘Thriving at work’ report in October 2017, Theresa May said “around 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem are losing their jobs each year.” But unions warned the prime minister’s plans to improve mental health at work will founder unless cuts to mental health services are reversed and workers are given better legal protection. [more]



Resources

Tackling workplace stress using the HSE Stress Management Standards, TUC and HSE guidance for health and safety representatives, January 2017.
Mental health and employment, TUC, 2017.
Mental health in the workplace workbook, TUC Unionlearn, 2016.
Good practice in workplace mental health, TUC, 2015.
Mental health at work: A young workers’ guide, TUC, 2015.
Bullying at work - Guidance for safety representatives, TUC, 2015.
Mental health in the workplace: Information sheet, WHO, 2017.
Advice for employers on workplace adjustments for mental health conditions, Department of Health, 2012.
Reducing the risk of suicide: A toolkit for employers, Samaritans/Business in the Community, March 2017.
Mental health in the workplace – an initial guide for reps, FBU, 2016.
A GMB guide to mental health at work, GMB, 2017.
Supporting members with mental health conditions and issues, UCU.
Preventing work-related mental health conditions by tackling stress, guidance for school leaders, NUT (NEU), GMB, UNISON and Unite, 2015.
MIND mental health at work webpages.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) workplace webpages.
Mental health in the workplace, Acas online guide.
Mental health is your business: Guidance for developing a workplace policy, EHRC, 2014.

 



Anxiety and depression rate at record high

‘Moderate to extreme’ anxiety and depression among workers in the UK has hit a record high with 1 in 10 workers now affected, new figures have revealed.

Research by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) published in October 2017 shows that rates of moderate to extreme anxiety and depression among employees has soared by 30.5 per cent since records began in 2013. Part-time workers appear to be bearing the brunt, with the figure among this group having risen by more than a third (33.6 per cent) in the same period.

Collated from a GP Patient Survey with 781,174 respondents – 346,465 of whom were in full time employment and 105,040 who were part-time workers, the findings show that rates of moderate to extreme anxiety and depression among workers have risen from just over 7 per cent in 2013 to nearly 10 per cent in 2017. In 2013, the rate for those in full-time employment was 6.85 per cent, in 2017 this has risen to 8.89 per cent – a rise of 29.7 per cent.  For those in part-time employment the rate of 8.66 per cent in 2013 has risen to 11.57 per cent in 2017 – a rise of 33.6 per cent.

UKCP is calling for an urgent review of workplace practices. Chief executive Professor Sarah Niblock said: “It is extremely worrying. Ministers must realise that the crisis is here, and the crisis is now.” The professor added: “Compared with the potential cost to the economy in lost productivity, high quality psychotherapies are cheap.”

Figures released by NHS Digital in September 2017 revealed nearly a third of fit notes issued by GPs are now for psychiatric problems. The report says this makes them the most common reason for people to take time off work, ahead of musculoskeletal diseases.

A May 2017 report from the TUC concluded only 1 in 4 people with a mental illness or phobia lasting for 12 months or more is in work. Mental health and employment analysed official employment statistics and revealed while 4 in 5 (80.4 per cent) non-disabled people are in work, people with mental illness, anxiety or depression have substantially lower employment rates.

 

Legal protection needed from mental ill-health at work

Up to 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems have to leave their jobs each year, a report has concluded. It also claims poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99bn each year.

Prime minister Theresa May, who commissioned the report, said it showed “we need to take action.” She is asking NHS England and the civil service to accept the report's recommendations.

Paul Farmer, co-author of the Thriving at work report and chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: “Opportunities are missed to prevent poor mental health and ensure that employees who may be struggling get the support they need. In many instances employers simply don't understand the crucial role they can play, or know where to go for advice and support.”

The review makes 40 recommendations about how employers and the government can better support employees to remain at work, such as through creating an online wellbeing portal and using digital technology to support workers in the gig economy.

The report, published on 26 October 2017, recommends the “government sets clearer expectations of employers through legislation, and makes Statutory Sick Pay more flexible to better support people with mental health problems to make voluntary phased returns to work where appropriate.”

Companies are also being encouraged to include a section on employee mental health in their annual reports. Currently only 11 per cent of companies do this, the report found.

The review says employers should: Create a mental health at work plan; build mental health awareness by making information and support accessible; encourage open conversations; provide good working conditions and ensure employees have a healthy work-life balance; promote effective people management, with line managers holding regular conversations about health and well-being with their staff; and routinely monitor employee mental health.

In October 2017, the government announced a £15 million programme it said see up to 1 million people trained in basic mental health “first aid” skills. The campaign, designed and delivered by Public Health England (PHE), will help people assess their own mental well-being and learn techniques to reduce stress.

But ministers have so far failed to respond to the report’s call for new legal duties on employers and have dramatically scaled back mental health services, employment protection and the funding and functions of the Health and Safety Executive, the workplace health enforcer.

Unions said the prime minister’s plans to improve mental health at work will founder unless cuts to mental health services are reversed and workers are given better legal protection.

Unite, which represents mental health nurses and applied psychologists, called on the government to reverse cuts in mental health services and to start properly funding services. Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “It is all very well the government welcoming the report but ministers need to invest in mental health services which have been cut to the bone since 2010.”

Dan Shears, safety director with the union GMB, said: “This report shows the urgent need for legislation and how the voluntary approach to workplace mental health has utterly failed. The modern workplace puts incredible strain on employees.”  He added: “Workers need support and reasonable adjustments for existing conditions, and preventative action to stop mental ill health developing. Getting this right would save the UK economy almost £100 billion per year.”

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the union Prospect, said the government could not ignore the impact of funding cuts and other “aggravating factors in the increase of mental health, such as increased workloads, long hours working and work-related stress.”

Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers, an independent report for DWP/DoH, 26 October 2017 [pdf].

 

Top of the page

 




 

 


 

Search Hazards

Unravelling

Art lecturer Kate Rawnsley knew a succession of maddening management decisions were pushing her to the verge of a breakdown. She tells Hazards editor Rory O’Neill how college bosses denied repeatedly responsibility for her symptoms. But their ‘totally dehumanising’ behaviour would be exposed in court.

CASE CLOSED
Kate Rawnsley’s recording provided crucial evidence in her union-backed stress case.

Contents
Introduction
The beginning of the end
Room for improvement
End of course
Judgment day
Vindicated
Resources

Hazards webpages
Stress
Work and health
Suicide

Related stories
Anxiety and depression rate at record high

Thriving at work?
Will Theresa May act on mental health at work report’s recommendations?