Argyll & Bute Council: Stress-related sick days rise

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More Argyll and Bute Council staff members are taking sick days for stress-related reasons, a senior official at the authority has confirmed.

A report revealed that the average number of sick days from January to March 2019 was more than double the council’s target figure of 1.88, registering at 3.78. The figure is up slightly on the same period of 2018, when a figure of 3.51 sick days was recorded.

When questioned about stress as a cause of the absences, Douglas Hendry, the authority’s executive director of customer services, confirmed it was a contributing factor. The matter was discussed at a meeting of the council’s policy and resources committee on May 16 – during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Councillor Richard Trail asked: “We are all conscious that with the budget cuts council officers are now being asked to do more with less resources. In terms of sickness absence being on the rise, are you seeing more examples of stress-related absence?”

Mr Hendry replied: “The short answer is yes. I wouldn’t say it was the only cause, but it would be reasonable to say that it is a contributory factor.”

After being questioned by Councillor Audrey Forrest on whether associations like the Scottish Association for Mental Health or the Mental Health Foundation were being consulted, Mr Hendry continued: “Yes. We have also got mental health first aiders who are ready and available, in some cases, just to have a chat with people. They are also available if things get more serious.

“Last week, as a senior management team, we also spoke to colleagues in the NHS and the health and social care partnership, as well as the groups Councillor Forrest mentioned. We heard what professionals allied to medicine can do and we have taken a number of points from what they said.”

Council chief executive Cleland Sneddon then said: “We do have a level of detail, but I want to be clear – there is a trend of stress and mental health where we know it is not all related to workload. There might be other contributing factors. We have an employed body who, every year, go through the process of identifying savings and cuts.

“There is an uncertainty because of scenarios that will inevitably affect people’s confidence to work. It is not by any manner or means all because our staff are being asked to do more with less resources – there are other issues.”

Councillor Elaine Robertson then responded: “I appreciate that there are other factors but given the reduction in the number of staff over the last few years, there has to be cognisance that it is adding to the stress of work.”

Councillor Lorna Douglas then suggested two ideas which could alleviate any issues with staff stress at the council.

She said: “I was listening to something on the radio with a private company which was reducing to a four-day week and taking Wednesdays off. I am not suggesting that the council can do this realistically, but what was really impressive was that it increased productivity.

“It helped with health and wellbeing because people had that day off to ease family pressures. There is another council which is looking into this.

“Another option might be job shares. Rather than people having no job, I am wondering whether something like this could be looked at.”

Mr Hendry said: “I think there are a few things we are reasonably on the ball with. You mentioned job sharing – that is something that is within the council. It is not available for every post but all jobs that are suitable can be filled on that basis.

“I think we have a fair number of people doing different work patterns to suit their circumstances. In terms of condensed working hours, that is something we know is there, but there are issues in and around a lot of the ways we would implement it.

“If we were able to go to a four-day week, we would only pay people for four days’ work. It is possible to take a different view but if you think about it, is it something the council could accommodate? I have my doubts. But if there was a specific proposal, our human resources team would be happy to pick it up.”

Simon MacFarlane, regional organiser for Argyll and Bute with the Unison trade union, said: “This is largely a reflection of issues to do with the constant reduction in the council workforce. This has been brought about by needless austerity over the last few years. Many council workers have left, mostly voluntarily but some through compulsory redundancy, when there has been no reduction in the workload.

“Therefore people are feeling the strain, and that is reflected in these figures.”