Stressed on the job?

Absenteeism and low morale is rife among waste operatives in the public sector with many managers ill-equipped to deal with the problem, according to a report

A recent study analysing the position of local authority waste and refuse collection operatives has revealed high levels of workplace stress, resulting in low morale and high levels of absenteeism. In an age where comparable commercial organisations are adopting a more supportive attitude towards their key workers - and where employee engagement and retention is recognised as a key cost-saving strategy - there is a distinct danger that local government is lagging behind.

When conducting staff forums for a local authority employing 600 staff, with 50 on the waste and recycling team, serving 80,000 customers, a report by management training and staff development consultancy WorkScales discovered that workplace bullying and low morale was rife. Not only did refuse collection and waste management operatives suffer physical and verbal abuse from the general public, but communication from their line managers was also judged as 'poor' or 'non-existent'.

According to the study, employees felt de-motivated, stressed, not listened to, unsupported and vulnerable. It appeared that senior management was failing to protect all its employees in contravention of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to assess and manage the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities, and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, leaving themselves open to litigation.

Lack of engagement
"What is worrying is that some senior managers in the public sector are not engaging with their staff down the line," says Madeleine Moore, managing director of WorkScales. "The findings of the study showed that there was no meaningful communication between the senior management team and the workforce - and often no communication between the recycling and waste management teams, who were working as separate competitive entities rather than for the good of the department as a whole."

She adds: "Manual workers were never consulted and had no means of finding out what was going on internally unless they used the Intranet. Unfortunately most of them did not know how to use it and were not offered any training to enable them to do so, only compounding their frustration. Sadly, line managers are ill-equipped to deal with complaints from their staff members as they often have no people skills training."

The majority of refuse and recycling collectors and supervisors said they felt completely unsupported by their line managers and would not consider going to them for help, as their problems were likely to be ridiculed and any confidential personal issues spread round the workplace, making matters worse.

"The general feeling amongst the workforce was of not being valued or engaged in the decision-making process in any way - even though they would have first hand knowledge of the key issues involved in the collection and recycling of waste which could help increase efficiency, or possibly even save money," explains Moore.

To keep morale and productivity high, the Health & Safety Executive recommends that "workers' opinions and feedback should be invited, and all suggestions given due consideration". In the case of one particular local authority, the management style seemed to be hierarchical and directive rather than supportive - i.e. the manual workers were told to 'Do as you're told, get on with the job and don't ask questions'.

"That's hardly encouraging and a long way short of best practice," Moore remarks, while pointing out that the council involved did at least recognise it had a management problem and had the courage to call in some expert help to identify the solutions, which it is now implementing successfully.

"Recognising you have a problem is a crucial first step," says Moore. "Leadership from the top down the line is vital. Properly trained line managers have a key role in ensuring the good health and well-being of employees, leading to improved departmental performance. Targeting money at this area really can be cost-effective."

There is a view that the public sector should be leading by example. Although a good deal of work has been done to improve attendance management in the public sector, more can and should be done to contribute to improved services to the public.

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