Ettrickbridge man leads calls for resolution of council stress ‘pandemic’

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AN Ettrickbridge man, dismissed last year as an employee of Scottish Borders Council, has claimed work-related stress is at “pandemic proportions” within the Newtown-based local authority.

Gordon Branston, who worked in the wellbeing and safety department, claims he was sacked for expressing frustration that the issue was not being tackled and that staff concerns were dealt with in a retributive rather than restorative way.

The 47-year-old alleges that within days of starting work on January 10 last year in the wellbeing and safety department – under the aegis of human resources – he received data which indicated that 47 per cent of signed-off employees were suffering from work-related stress.

“By any standards, that is a pandemic and one I now believe directly relates to a culture of bullying and intimidation,” he told us this week.

Mr Branston said he was moved to go public after recent revelations about sickness absences at SBC.

The council’s scrutiny panel was told at its February meeting that in 2011, the average number of days’ absence for non-teaching staff stood at 11.6 – 1.8 days more than the Scottish council average.

The councillors heard that anxiety, stress and depression accounted for 23 per cent of long-term absences.

Scrutiny made several recommendations, including a review of the current policy of staff being in breach of contract for sharing concerns with councillors and a reminder to all line managers of their responsibilities in terms of contacting employees who are off sick.

Although these were dismissed by SBC’s executive, an intervention by leader David Parker ensured the recommendations were endorsed at the final meeting of the council last month.

Mr Branston claims the proportion of work-related stress absences reported to scrutiny did not tally with the much higher figures he had gleaned when he was charged, on his first day in the job, to carry out a well-being audit.

The Glasgow-born graduate and dad of two was brought up in South Africa and, for 12 years, worked in the post-apartheid local, provincial and national governments of that country, focusing on community health leadership and social upliftment programmes.

“The ethos of reconciliation, underpinned by a spirit of openness and the affirmation of others, will always be with me and I wanted to bring that experience to my job at Newtown,” said Mr Branston.

But he claimed that when, just five weeks into the £25,000-a-year job, he urged his managers that dealing with work-related stress should be at the core of, rather than a bolt-on to, the council’s well-being policies, he was “shouted down” by one of them. “It was a very traumatic and humiliating experience,” he recalled.

Ironically, Mr Branston was then himself signed off, his GP diagnosing work-related stress.

On March 22 last year he returned to Newtown for an investigative hearing, the transcript of which, he claims, was later “hugely redacted”.

A hearing was set up for May 10 which, on the advice of his doctor, Mr Branston could not attend and, the following day, he received confirmation he had been dismissed “on the grounds there has been an irretrievable breakdown in the working relationship between you and your managers”.

He was told that no record of the hearing had been kept and, despite an internal appeal, the decision was upheld.

“I do not want to go through an employment tribunal process because I have no wish to work again for this organisation, but I do want new councillors to know what they are taking on and the insidious culture which is making the lives of so many staff a misery,” said Mr Branston.

He told The Wee Paper he had a dossier of documents relating to his own case and would be happy to address a meeting of the scrutiny panel, if the new council wishes to further investigate the issue of sickness absence.

“I would also ask councilllors, when they are elected, to order a moratorium on all future dismissals or threats of dismissals of SBC employees while they are on authorised sick leave as an urgent measure,” said Mr Branston.

“They should ensure transcripts are produced at any meetings where employees are engaged in disputes or challenging managers’ decisions and they should initiate an independently appointed panel to take statements from each employee currently off with work-related stress on the reasons for this absenteeism and to consider the role of management in attempting to resolve issues of concern.”

A spokesperson for SBC said: “We have no comment.”