the outgoing leader of Scottish Borders Council, the region’s largest employer, admitted this week that the management of stress in the local authority workplace must be tackled “head on”.
David Parker, who is seeking re-election on May 3 as the independent councillor for Leaderdale and Melrose, was responding to issues raised by former employee Gordon Branston who claimed work-related stress within SBC was of “pandemic proportions”.
Mr Parker was also explaining why, last month, he intervened to support a range of recommendations from the cross-party wathdog scrutiny panel after it had conducted a hearing into sickness absences among council staff.
Scrutiny was told in February that anxiety, stress and depression accounted for 23 per cent of long-term absences. It made several recommendations, including for the current policy of employees being in breach of contract for sharing concerns with councillors to be reviewed and for line managers to be reminded of their responsibilities in terms of contacting employees who are off sick.
Although these were dismissed by SBC’s executive, Mr Parker ensured the recommendations were endorsed at the final meeting of the council.
Mr Branston claimed that during a five-week stint in the wellbeing and safety department of the council last year, he discovered that work-related stress accounted for 47 per cent of sickness absences at SBC.
Asked what councillors elected on May 3 could do to tackle the problem, Mr Parker told us: “There is an important role for councillors to play in terms of the workforce and the workplace. One of the critical things we as councillors must do is make sure we have good human resources [HR] procedures and policies and that, in terms of employee support, we also have all the things you would expect from a good and caring employer in place.
“I think, as a council moving forward, there is a piece of work to be done to make sure we are doing everything possible to ensure these polices are sound so that, where there is best practice on stress management, we should be seeking it out and implementing it.
“Stress in the workplace is a well recognised issue and it is one we need to tackle head on. In supporting scrutiny’s recommendations, it was important to send a clear signal to our senior officers that this is an area elected members are concerned about.
“It’s something that staff do talk about and we have to ensure that, going forward, we’ve got the best possible processes and policies in place to combat it.”
Speaking to TheSouthern ahead of next week’s polls, Mr Parker also cautioned against calls in the local SNP manifesto for the current executive/scrutiny decision-making system, which vests power in the hands of an elite band of administration councillors, to be replaced by a more inclusive committee system.
“Nobody would argue with taking a fresh look at our current decision-making arrangements, but to go back 10 years to the committee system would be a retrograde step,” said Mr Parker.
He went on: “Under the committee system, 80 per cent of all reports were for noting and committees were unable to make decisions about property, finance and employment matters.
“In my opinion it was also the committee system which led to the failure in dealing with the infamous £3.9million education overspend in a decisive manner. Meanwhile everyone who sat on the old social work committee was completely oblivious to the issues [revealed at various enquiries into the infamous Miss X abuse case] that faced that department in the early part of the last decade.”
Mr Parker said that by far the most important challenge facing the new council was to re-prioritise resources to support job creation and economic development.
“Jobs are critical and we need to do more as a local authority in this area. The creation of jobs and an overhaul of the council’s economic development activity must be a key theme in the first year of a new council.”