Stressed staff at Somerset County Council go sick as spending cuts bite
Thousands of work days are being lost to stress as hard-pressed council staff helping some of the West’s most vulnerable people struggle to cope in the wake of spending cuts.
Public sector union Unison painted a grim picture of life for Somerset County Council staff last night as the authority proposed another 189 redundancies. Stress caused staff to go sick on several hundred more days in 2012 than the year before, the union said, and feared the absence rate would only get worse in 2013.
Oliver Foster-Burnell, Unison Area Organiser Somerset said job cuts and restructuring had already taken a shocking toll on staff health and morale.
“They are at breaking point. The rise in stress is astronomical and we are trying to engage with the council on how to reduce it,” he said.
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A county council spokesman refuted the suggestion that staff were at breaking point, said sickness levels were consistent with the best-performing councils in England, and that some increase was to be expected as the council struggled to deliver excellent services with falling budgets and fewer staff.
Figures supplied to the union by the council show that in 2012 3,809 days were lost to stress in the learning disabilities department, an increase of 312 on the previous year, and the equivalent of 3.22 days per employee.
“These figures are purely for stress, they are not for sickness, not for a cold, not for a bad back,” said Mr Foster-Burnell.
In children’s social care services the number of days off for stress has risen from 1,588.75 (2.93 days per person) to 1,970, the equivalent of 3.41 days off per person. In the adult services department, which has 583 staff, the number of days lost to stress has fallen from 1,273 or 2.17 per employee to 989, 1.7 per employee.
A council spokesman said: “In terms of the trends as reported, this is no different to that found in other organisations throughout the UK as we all try and grapple with the economic downturn. The current economic climate makes it hard for everyone and Unison should understand that.”
The council’s measures to help staff include a revitalised nurse-led occupational health service; extending the independent counselling service, continued support for the In-house Listening Service and closer working with the NHS and public health bodies in improving council employees’ levels of health and wellbeing.
The Conservative-controlled authority, which is preparing to set its budget next month, says it will have to operate with £20 million less than last year because of a tough settlement from Government while demand for services increase. Proposals include a freeze on council tax for a fourth year in a row, a major £4.8 million extra investment in caring for vulnerable people, extra funding for roads, and more books for Somerset’s libraries. But savings are also proposed across the board.
Mr Foster-Burnell said: “This is yet another year of Government funding cuts which continue to bite the residents of Somerset and the staff of the county council. Services affected this year include school transport and early years provision. A further £1.4 million is to be axed from children’s centres, with further redundancies across Somerset County Council and more expected. Front-line services which have already been cut are still shrinking or disappearing altogether.
“The Government continues to make the public pay for the mistakes of the banks and the tax dodgers. Unison has serious concerns for our members during this time of austerity, with household budgets tightening and jobs scarce, public sector workers are bearing the brunt of the cuts.”