Stress probe is needed, says SBC candidate

A CANDIDATE at the forthcoming Scottish Borders Council elections is calling for an investigation into a claim that work-related stress is at “pandemic” levels at the Newtown-based local authority, writes Andrew Keddie.

Michael Grieve, who is standing for Labour in the Hawick and Denholm ward and is a former employee of Midlothian Council, said he was “very perturbed” to read the allegation in last week’s Southern.

He was alluding to the story about Gordon Branston from Ettrickbridge who was dismissed as SBC’s wellbeing and safety officer in May last year.

Mr Branston, 47, said that, during the five weeks after he began work in January, he discovered that work-related stress accounted for 47 per cent of staff sickness absences.

He claimed that after asking his managers on more than one occasion to put tackling this issue at the core of the council’s wellbeing policies, he was shouted down by one of them. “It was a very traumatic and humiliating experience,” he recalled.

As a result of this perceived atmosphere of retribution, he himself was signed off with work-related stress, returning to Newtown on March 22 last year for an investigative hearing at Newtown, the transcript of which, he claims, was “hugely redacted”.

Mr Branston’s doctor considered his patient too ill to attend a disciplinary hearing on May 10, but he was able to give written submissions.

However, the following day he received a letter from Jill Stacey, head of audit and risk, who chaired the hearing, informing him he had been dismissed “on the grounds that there is an irretrievable breakdown in the working relationship between you and your managers”. No notes or transcripts of that hearing exist.

The decision, however, was later confirmed by Ian Wilkie, head of legal and democratic services, most recently in February this year, when he told Mr Branston: “The council has an agreed policy on health, safety and wellbeing and this has been endorsed by councillors. With regard to the disciplinary hearing which led ultimately to your contract of employment being terminated.I am satisfied the council conducted the investigation and hearing properly and in accordance with agreed policy.”

Mr Wilkie added: “I intend to have no further communication on the issue and consider the matter closed.”

Last week, SBC chose to make no comment on Mr Branston’s case or allegations, but yesterday a spokesman told us: “Scottish Borders Council has robust procedures in place for the protection of employees who are subject to disciplinary procedures and outcomes.

“This includes the right of appeal to an independent committee of elected members. The council’s wellbeing and safety policies and procedures are constantly under review to ensure best practice.”

Mr Branston believes his own case and the data he discovered on the scale of work-related stress during his short stint at Newtown “directly relates to a culture of bullying and intimidation”, and he has been heartened, since last week, to receive a number of communications from SBC employees, past and present, who claim to have also been victims of that culture.

“I received a kind and emotional letter the day after the article appeared from a former employee representing six SBC work colleagues forced into work-related stress after whistleblowing on bullying and harrassment, and forced to resign in 2008,” said Mr Branston. “The details were reported to two prominent councillors who did nothing which, unfortunately, seems par for the course.

“I will be happy to talk to any new councillors about what I have discovered and I would urge the new council, as a first step, to urgently impose a moratorium on all dismissals of, or threats of dismissals to, staff while they are on authorised sick leave and to ensure transcripts are available from all hearings, pending a full-scale review of policies which should be restorative, but are, in fact, retributive.”

Mr Grieve told us: “If elected on May 3, it will be a priority for Labour in the Borders to ensure the matters raised are investigated fully. If work related stress is as high as he claims, it must be taken seriously.”