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Tracey Lee: This toxic mix of long hours and stress will surely cease to be sustainable

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This is the most comprehensive survey of pressures facing senior council staff for some time.

It is of great interest to Alace as the only union that represents exclusively chief executives and senior managers working in local government across the UK. I would like to thank LGC for organising the survey and all Alace members and others who took part for providing such rich feedback.

The survey results present an interesting conundrum. On the one hand most respondents are satisfied with their jobs (almost two-thirds giving a marking of 7/10 or higher). A similar proportion both felt often or always optimistic about their job in the previous fortnight, and believe that they are adequately paid. However, a clear majority feel that their workload has increased to an unmanageable or almost unmanageable level in the last year, which is reflected in those who rarely or never felt relaxed doing their job in the fortnight before the survey.

The crux comes in the two-thirds who felt that their jobs had become more stressful in the last 12 months, affecting performance in about half of cases, but with only a very small proportion having time off as a result of a condition exacerbated by exhaustion. People who fill senior management roles in local government have to be resilient and able to cope with pressure and competing demands. However, prolonged exposure to stress is not good for everyone, even though a clear majority of respondents seems still to enjoy their jobs when under pressure.

The levels of stress reported are not surprising when local government has absorbed significant spending reductions. Demonstrably, it is the most efficient part of the public sector. Chief executives and senior managers have transformed what local government does and implemented new and effective service delivery mechanisms. In many cases, these include leadership roles in two or even three councils and shared services, which add to workload and complexity. In successfully arguing for chief executives to receive the same 2% pay increase in 2018 and 2019 as other local government staff, we made points such as these to the Local Government Employers.

However perhaps the toxic mix of long hours and stress will cease to be sustainable. Will it be reflected in future in a higher incidence of senior staff becoming ill, including by suffering from mental health issues? It is clear that most chief executives and senior managers draw on their immediate management team colleagues for support. The high proportion reporting that they know colleagues who have experienced mental health issues is bound to include a level of self-reporting, but the stigma that senior managers feel in talking about their mental health is a concern.

Providing strong leadership in these challenging times should not mean that individuals have to subjugate their own health to the interests of the organisation. If the perception of stigma reflects that colleagues feel it is a sign of weakness or incompetence to admit to suffering from mental health issues, Alace, other unions, employers and professional representative bodies need to work together to dispel that.

The expert consultancy support that Alace offers its members in respect of employment issues ranges from focusing on restructuring or grievances to relationship issues and disciplinary cases. Inevitably anyone who contacts Alace for support is likely to be experiencing additional stress although – thankfully – rarely are health issues at the heart of any difficulty or the reason why a ‘parting of the ways’ might be proposed.

As a membership-led organisation, Alace will pay particular attention to the response suggesting that only a third of senior mangers feel adequately supported by representative organisations. This message may be directed at a range of bodies such as the Local Government Association, professional bodies such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, as well as ALACE and other unions. Our own experience is that, in the vast majority of cases, Alace members are grateful for the support that they receive whether on employment matters or in respect of the taxation of pensions, which has been a significant growth area for us in recent years. Nevertheless, we should not be complacent and we will study carefully the detailed comments that have been provided in this exceptionally helpful survey.

Tracey Lee, chair, Association of Local Authority Chief Executives

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