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To look after their populations councils must look after their officers

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To be continually asked to do more with less is not conducive to one’s personal welfare.

Yes, there may be initial pride at victories against the odds but eventually the inevitable happens: as budgets fall, an organisation falters, staff begin to buckle under pressure and anger rises among elected members and service users.

Life as a senior officer in local government has not been easy this decade. Medals have been in short supply from above but complaints about your pay being excessive, your organisation’s performance faltering and even whether your employer gives you biscuits – yes, it’s that trivial – have been abundant.

Unsurprisingly there has been an impact on chief executives and senior managers. They have performed huge feats as they seek to serve their local populations to the limits of their abilities, but they cannot perform miracles. Senior management has been disproportionately targeted for cuts and yet senior managers are now expected to (and indeed keen to) reach out to partner organisations locally and assume new responsibilities as a leader of their place. This all equates to more meetings, more complexity and more work.

LGC’s survey this week, in association with the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, reveals a majority of senior managers are considering leaving their role. Most report a workload escalating into ‘unmanageable’ territory and most say they know of colleagues experiencing mental health conditions. Our survey makes difficult reading – but it is important reading.

We need to talk about the impact of growing stress on senior managers. Yes, they crave responsibility; yes, leadership roles should be demanding; and, yes, there are huge rewards from having the influence to shape the destiny of your local area, but the growing burdens heaped upon senior managers must be recognised.

LGC also reveals how three-quarters of managers know of a colleague who has a mental health condition. We should salute the courage of Solihull MBC chief executive Nick Page who has had the bravery to disclose how he has experienced mental health issues. He has opened up to his council’s staff in a bid to show them they are not alone as they struggle to operate in a tougher world. And now, through LGC, Mr Page is revealing his condition to a broader local government audience in an attempt to break down the stigma associated with mental health.

Mr Page’s interview reminds us that local government needs to support its dedicated staff. They have vulnerabilities and struggles. For too long officers’ welfare has not featured in the debate about local government – but this must now change. Sector leadership bodies now need to rise to the challenge of standing up for senior officers: councils’ unsung heroes.

Local government by its very nature looks after its local population. While it should and will continue to do everything it can for residents, it must also look after itself: its members and, in particular, its officers. Without their toil and inspiration, local communities would be diminished. 

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