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How likely are you to get the right candidate if your job advert requires someone prepared to 'live and breathe' the job?

Morale in schools and colleges is low. Many teachers and other staff have already gone on strike and, according to the National Education Union, around 200,000 of its members are ready to strike this week over pay and conditions. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers and there is a huge number of vacancies. The reasons most teachers and senior leaders give for wanting to leave the profession is due to high workloads, a desire to achieve a better work/life balance and to feel valued.

So, it's hardly surprising that an job advert for an assistant headteacher for a secondary school in Sheffield attracted widespread criticism.  

The advert

The school wanted someone who 'rolls up their sleeves, a doer and a grafter'. Nothing wrong with that. But it then went on to say it wanted 'a likeminded individual who will work ridiculously hard to deliver for our pupils. When I say ridiculously hard, I mean it! You will have to live and breathe the school and be wedded to it. It may dominate your life on occasions'. 

Candidates were advised to ask themselves 'are you ok with the team contacting you in the evening? Meetings in holidays and being prepared to do detentions on Saturday morning? Can you cope with huge demands throughout the day, which include teaching a high load, managing pastoral issues and being on alert from 7am through until 6pm ... high energy and sacrifice are required to excel in this position ... We cannot carry anyone; we need a commitment from our Assistant Headteacher to stay until the job is done'. 

What it says about the school

The language is rebarbative and is likely to put off more candidates than it attracts - particularly women and people with a disability. Anyone who has childcare or caring responsibilities is unlikely to be able to work the hours expected. There's no mention of flexibility either. Plus, a number of surveys have found that women are more likely than men to be put off applying for jobs that they are qualified to do where job adverts use 'macho' language.  

Our views about work have changed dramatically over the last decade or so. And that has accelerated since Covid-19. Many people are not willing to put their lives on hold to progress their careers. A recent survey into salary and recruitment trends found that almost two thirds (56%) of employees are willing to accept a lower-paid job in exchange for a better work-life balance, and a third (33%) of workers consider work-life balance to be the most crucial consideration when looking for a job. 

I'd be interested to know how many people actually applied for the job. I suspect that it will be a much smaller pool of candidates than they would have received if the ad set out reasonable expectations. All we know for sure is that the job ad disappeared after the school started getting flak about it.

Legal risks

There's no point in soft soaping your job ad's. You want to attract someone who will share your organisation's values and do a good job. It's important to make your expectations clear from the outset. And, you can ask more of senior employees than those who are more junior. But you must be realistic. You will only attract and retain good staff if you treat them fairly.

If you are tempted to write a similar job advert, you need to consider the following: 

1. Working hours, rest and paid holidays

Let's be generous and assume that the 'lucky' candidate takes an hour off for lunch each day. They will still be working 10 hours a day and, if you throw in Saturday mornings and after hours support, they could be 'on duty' for over 55 hours a week during term-time. 

Under the Working Time Regulations, employees shouldn't work for more than 48 hours a week (which is averaged over 17 weeks) unless they have signed an opt-out. They also should have eleven hours of 'down time' between work and at least one day off each week. Plus, employees should not be expected to pick up work when they are on paid leave.

These regulations are designed to protect the health and safety of workers. It's well known that people who work longer hours are more likely to suffer from adverse health conditions. The World Health Authority conducted a global study in 2021 which indicated that people who worked 55 or more hours each week, had a 38% higher chance of having a stroke, and a 17% higher chance of having heart disease than someone working 35-40 hours a week. Risk increased with age and middle-aged and older people were most at risk. 

The most recent Teaching and Learning International Survey (conducted in 2018) found that secondary teachers reported working, on average, nearly 50 hours a week. Full-time primary teachers worked over 52 hours a week and senior leaders worked even longer hours. In 2018, the average primary headteacher in England worked around 57 hours per week, compared to around 62 hours for the average lower-secondary headteacher.

2. Stress and risk assessments

Stress, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive is an 'adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. Stress is not the same as ill-health but it can lead to psychiatric illness, including depression and anxiety. Stress affects people differently – what causes stress in one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether a worker can cope. 

Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their workforce. They are required to identify hazards and take reasonable measures to reduce those risks as part of their usual risk assessments. The duty to take reasonable care to ensure the safety of employees at work extends to mental as well as physical health. Stress should therefore be included in those assessments.

One of the main triggers of stress is workload. People who can't cope with the demands of their job are likely to exhibit signs of stress (such as high levels of sickness absence, mood swings, becoming withdrawn, loss of motivation and confidence). 

Teachers have higher levels of stress than many other professions. The 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed that 84% of senior leaders feel stressed and 87% had experience mental health issues. Sixty seven percent had considered leaving due to pressures on their mental health and 58% were actively looking for another job. Heavy workloads was the main reason. And senior leaders had the highest rates of exhaustion, burnout and acute stress within the profession. 

Any employer who basically tells a member of staff that they have to continue to work until the job is done will need to keep a keen eye on their welfare and step in if the employee shows signs of stress or mental ill-health.

3. Disability and reasonable adjustments

Stress is not a disability. However, it can lead to conditions which are mental impairments such as anxiety and depression. Stress can also exacerbate other conditions; including dyslexia or epilepsy, or even certain physical conditions such as aggravating someone’s diabetes.

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people can access and progress in employment. In the context of stress-related medical conditions, an employer may have to provide supervision or support, reduce their hours/workload, or allocate them a different type of work. Acas has a list of common adjustments for staff experiencing mental ill-health which employees may find helpful.

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Using the hashtags #weddedtothejob and #mercilessmercia, one teacher commented on Twitter: “Remind me why there’s a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching again??”

Another said: “This job advert from a Sheffield secondary is reason #417 why I will never teach in England again.” The advert also prompted conversations in schools about senior leadership wellbeing.”