When Karen Williamson, a school technician at a Winchester academy school in her early Fifties, found that her working life was about to be turned upside down, she asked her UNISON rep, deputy branch secretary Mary Pearson, to help find a solution.
Karen: I was a technician at a secondary school, for ten and a half years. I split my working day between two departments: resistant materials and graphics. The job entailed prepping resources for students, ordering stock, helping in lessons, being there to assist the department on the running of a school day. I loved it.
A while ago our head teacher took retirement and a new one joined the school. There were various changes and staff morale dropped. Then it was announced that within a few months the role of most technicians would be changing. I would still be employed for the same six hours a day, but I would be with my departments for just two of those hours and the other four would be spent in a central hub, where some of us would be responsible for admin tasks – photocopying, arranging school trips, things like that. I would be going from being a hands-on person to standing at a photocopier, waiting for work to come through a computer system.
At my time of life I don’t want to be spending four hours a day at a photocopier. It would have been a total waste of my skills. At the same time, in my two hours in my departments I’d still be expected to fit in all the tasks that I’d be doing for a six-hour day, which just wouldn’t be possible.
We broke up for the summer holidays. And I decided I was going to give this new role a try when we got back. Unfortunately I just didn’t feel myself. It was hard to get out of bed, I developed some stomach problems. I went to the GP, who signed me off from work with work-related stress.
When I was first ill, my goal was absolutely to go back. But I just didn’t feel right, I was so nervous about returning to work. Then a woman in occupational health told me that medical retirement may be an option.
When the head teacher contacted me about having an HR meeting, I got in touch with Mary and asked her to come with me, because in all my working life I hadn’t found myself in this situation before. It was such a relief to have her with me that day.
Mary: When I first met Karen, she had become depressed and anxious and was in a really bad state. A lot of her health problems were exacerbated by the changes that a relatively new head had made at the school. She loved her job, she loved the people she worked with, but the changes were really negative.
My first thought was, what can we do about the practical issues of this new role? Maybe the new head can put into place things that would remove the anxieties that Karen had.
We tried all the options to see if it was possible for Karen to make a phased return to work, but realised that this wouldn’t work. For example, my proposal that Karen’s post be temporarily filled for six months while she regained her health was rejected. There was nothing the school was going to do that would solve the problem, and meanwhile Karen was definitely going downhill with her stress and depression.
After the meeting with HR and the head teacher, I insisted that we have a face-to-face occupational health meeting. It was her second one and this was quite key, because they analysed where Karen was in terms of stress and depression, and found that she hadn’t made any improvement at all. It became clear to me that detachment from the school would be the factor most likely to improve Karen’s wellbeing, thus enabling her to eventually achieve a happier working environment. So then it was a case of extricating her from the school in the best way possible, while giving her hope and a belief that there was a good future for her elsewhere, at such a time as her ill health was behind her.
I advised that she accept dismissal, and as it was due to ill health, there would be no stigma attached to it when she was well enough to seek future employment.
Karen: It was at the HR meeting, when the head teacher was pushing me to give a date for my return, that I realised I couldn’t go back there. How can you use a circular saw when you’re on medication for anxiety? It was at this point that I thought, ‘there’s more to life’. As Mary put it, there are other jobs out there, and happier places to work.
The head teacher later contacted me to say there was going to be a hearing with the board of governors, to discuss my dismissal. I could attend if I wanted, but I couldn’t face it. Mary had given me really good advice on employment law and my rights, and I asked her to attend the meeting on my behalf.
I was dismissed, with 10 weeks notice, and left the school in July. I’m updating my CV and have signed on with some job seeking firms. I’m confident that I will be happy within a workplace again, maybe learning new skills.
To lose a job that I’d done every day for 10 years, a job that I loved, was almost on the scale of a bereavement. I had to mourn the job – and I think that also contributed to my health issues. It would have been a lonely time if I’d had to do it by myself, attend meetings not feeling 100%, and feeling out of my depth with somebody who has rather a forceful personality. Thankfully, I had Mary fighting my corner, and that took some of the weight off my mind. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been able to get through it on my own.
Mary: I’ve been a rep for many years and I really do feel a lot of satisfaction and fulfilment in the role. You often see somebody in an awful position, and yet they show strength and amazing resourcefulness. I believe that part of my role is enabling the member to recognise what it is they really want out of the situation they are in. They’ve got the answer, but sometimes they need the help of a rep to reach it.