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Blair McPherson: Councils should protect staff from themselves

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No one should retire with their life expectancy shortened, their physical and emotional health impaired or their relationships damaged due to work. Not even senior managers at local authorities.

We all recognise the coasting manager who has lost enthusiasm for the job, become cynical, lethargic, unmotivated and too reliant on past experience. Others recognise, even if the person doesn’t, the toll the job has taken. We call it ‘burnout’.

We also recognise that there is another group who don’t seem to suffer this. Research has looked into why this might be. The assumption is that they are immune, which certainly appears the case whilst they are working. But I believe many of these individuals discover after they have retired just how much the job took out of them.

I am talking about myself, and those like me. But I don’t think I am unique.

Work was my hobby, and what I did in my leisure time. I worked long hours, attended evening meetings after work, took work home in my briefcase, and took work home in my head. My good will was routinely exploited, but I was happy for it to be so, because most of the time I enjoyed it.

Everyone knows a story of a manager who died within two years of retiring. All too often when the adrenaline stops the fatigue kicks in.

We know people benefit from preparation for life after work: how they will fill their days, how they will cope with the loss of status and purpose, as well as the drop in income and change of lifestyle.

But what are we doing to protect those in work from post-retirement fatigue? These are the after effects of long hours, year after year of budget cuts, constant pressure to deliver, the turmoil of frequent reorganisations and restructuring, and the self-imposed stress of wanting to do a good job.

This is a problem in many fields, but I think especially so in the public sector. The government’s ideological agenda to reduce the public sector has generated public local debates about closed hospitals and libraries, pot holes unfilled, fortnightly bin collection, streetlights turned off, and schools forced to become academies even if that’s not what parents want.

Often it’s officers who front up these decisions and experience public wrath. But in the public sector people really care. They work harder and longer to try to mitigate the impact of cuts and worry that a vulnerable child, a suicidal adult or a fragile elderly person will slip through the safety net. That Such people risk blame in the wake of any tragedy, and so they feel vulnerable.

No doubt there will be little sympathy for managers. We will be told they knew what the job involved when they took it on and were rewarded accordingly. But long hours are not something the individual chooses.

The reality of never being able to get work issues off your mind takes its toll. And just because no-one is forcing you to put this level of energy into your work does not make it any the less damaging.

The money is supposed to compensate you for the additional responsibility, but you can’t buy back evenings spent reading reports and catching up with emails or that your working week starts at Sunday tea time as you prepare for the next days’ meetings.

We need to protect these managers from themselves because we have a duty of care not to let work take so much out of them that only when they stop do they realise the true price they paid in terms of health and relationships.

It’s time to recognise that just because someone is paid more does not mean they should be exploited. A good employer would not exploit their employees even if those employees were willing to be so. That some managers never learn to switch off risks their post retirement life.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

Read LGC’s comprehensive October survey of workplace stress

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