Workplace mental health in local government

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2017 Local Government Service Group Conference
1 January 2017

Conference believes that mental ill-health among the local government workforce is a huge and growing concern.

A culture of long hours working, bullying, harassment and abuse is commonplace among local authority staff, with three quarters reporting consequent rising stress levels and declining morale.

Meanwhile growing levels of sickness absence, with no cover due to cuts in the workforce, growing employer demands and poverty wages, together with the constant threat of job losses and redundancy, create a climate of fear and anxiety for our members.

This is confirmed by a 2015 Guardian survey which shed light on how working in local government impacts on mental and physical wellbeing, with hundreds of employees attributing symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, recurrent infections or irritability to their working environment. Some 38% of local government respondents had sought medical advice or counselling to address work-related stress, while 65% had spoken to a manager about stress.

For women staff, these problems are exacerbated by low pay, the disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities and vulnerability caused by the loss of services to support women, including those who are victims of domestic abuse. It is well documented that when household income is under strain, domestic abuse increases, with women primarily the victims.

UNISON’s 2016 equality survey made clear the extent of the problem, and also the fact that workplace mental ill-health is a particular problem for women, Black, LGBT and disabled members.

In the survey, 25% of UNISON members in local government said they had experienced a mental health issue mainly triggered by work in the last year. This figure rose to 30% among women members in local government, 36% among Black members, 41% among LGBT members and a massive 53% among disabled members.

22% said they had sought medical advice, counselling or specialist support to help deal with stress at work. This figure was 26% among women, 33% among Black workers, 37% among LGBT workers and 51% among disabled members.

17% had had to take time off from work in the last year due to ill-health caused by stress at work. Again the figures were higher among members covered by the self-organised groups (SOGs): 21% among women, 26% among Black members, 28% among LGBT members and 37% among disabled members.

In UNISON’s survey, more than half of UNISON members in local government described their overall level of stress in their job as more stressful than 12 months previously.

Conference also notes with great concern the increasing mental ill-health conditions experienced by service users, for example among young people in further education. Increased mental ill-health also has an impact on the workforce – increasing workloads and hence causing stress.

Conference recognises that mental health and mental ill-health are poorly understood and that mental ill-health carries a negative stigma. It further recognises that the union can play a vital role in raising awareness and changing attitudes, both amongst our members and with our employers. We also need to ensure that our guidance to local government branches and local representatives addresses supporting and representing members with long term or permanent mental health conditions as well as members with stress-related ill health. Our approach also needs to reflect the fact that it is the working environment, including prejudice, discrimination and inequality, that is the primary cause of workplace stress-related ill health. It is therefore the working environment that needs changing, not the person.

It is clear that the massive cuts in local government funding, the loss of jobs, the permanent sense of job insecurity, the increased workloads for those still in work, cuts in terms and conditions, and the fall in real terms pay have combined to make local government a very stressful place to work in. Government cuts have led to unprecedented pressure and stress for local government workers. Whilst politicians fail to manage their constituents’ expectations of what can be achieved in the current economic climate, it is staff who are left to face the frustration and anger of the public, with devastating impact on our members’ mental health.

Mental ill-health can have devastating consequences for members and their families. Conference believes that more must be done to support all staff who are experiencing mental health issues. Employers have a responsibility to take all possible steps to support local government workers experiencing mental ill-health. This includes promoting a positive and supportive workplace culture, with appropriate training for managers and staff; and provision of employee advice helplines, mental health support, flexible working arrangements, and other innovative measures to assist staff.

It is also a growing problem for public service delivery, due to the time off local government workers need to take when they are unwell.

Conference calls on the service group executive:

1) To campaign for improved support for all workers experiencing mental health issues, including using all means possible to make employers aware of the impact of cuts on their staffs’ mental health

2) In conjunction with UNISON’s health and safety unit, to review what UNISON guidance exists on mental health, provide guidance to branches on negotiating policies to support workers with mental health issues, and update it if necessary;

3) To work with the SOGs to review what specific guidance exists, and is necessary, for members of the different SOGs on mental ill-health;

4) To encourage branches to raise with their employers the need for occupational health services that deal appropriately with mental health issues and for employee assistance or counselling services to offer services that are appropriate for the diversity of our members;

5) To promote UNISON’s guidance among branches, regions, SOGs and employers, emphasising the importance of the issue and highlighting the need to make this an organising issue;

6) To call on all of the sector committees within the service group to raise mental ill-health with employers and employers’ sides, pushing for better and more comprehensive policies, procedures and joint guidance, including covering equalities issues;

7) To ensure that the service group’s ‘Save Our Local Services’ anti-cuts campaign highlights stress at work and other mental health issues as key impacts of the cuts, ensuring that elected politicians are aware of the problem and are pushed to take action;

8) To promote World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2017, encouraging branches and regions to engage in relevant activities.