Council CEOs ‘hung out to dry’ on stress burden

Financial constraints and rising expectations are impacting the mental wellbeing of councils’ most senior managers, with the issue now set to be investigated in new research.

Local government professionals representatives in Western Australia are raising the alarm over council CEOs across the state being “hung out to dry” and facing mounting pressures caused by increasing expectations and diminishing resources, Government News can reveal.

Candy Choo

It was a worrying trend in the declining mental wellbeing of council CEOs that led the CEO of LG Professionals WA, Candy Choo to collaborate with the University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute on new research into the mental health impacts of these stresses.

“We see a number of CEOs and senior officers who are really struggling and have nowhere to go. Struggling with community expectations, some elected members, where behaviour is causing unnecessary workplace pressure and inappropriate behaviours,” Ms Choo told Government News.

“The CEO is left to be hung out to dry,” she said.

Tighter fiscal constraints, coupled with increasing community expectations surrounding service delivery mean that CEOs are “expected to do more with less,” the research proposal says.

Former CEO of the City of Melville, Dr Shayne Silcox says it was his experience of bullying that was one of the reasons that resulted in his decision to resign earlier this year and prompted him to consult LG Professionals WA, which triggered the state-wide research.

Shayne Silcox

Widening divisions within council resulting in hostility from some councillors and residents towards the CEO and council staff placed immense pressure on his mental wellbeing, he says.

“The CEO is implementing council endorsed positions and then becomes a target for that decision,” he told Government News.

He said he wrote to the departments of local government and commerce, Work Safe and a parliamentary committee on public administration, but ultimately felt he had to seek legal advice.

“The biggest stress I had was the inability to protect my staff. These are loyal staff trying to do the right thing,” he said.

It affected my sleep, my personality at times, it meant I spend less time managing the organisation.”

Dr Silcox says his experience is not unique and points to a meeting he held in March attended by 14 metropolitan council CEOs, all of whom reported similar experiences.

He says he is now working to raise awareness of the extent of mental health woes in local government and change the system for the next generation of leaders.

Several City of Melville residents have told Government News they dispute Mr Silcox’s version of events.

Impact of stress: research

Meanwhile the research, set to begin in November, hopes to uncover the scope of the problem while also producing recommendations on necessary workplace and policy changes.

The researchers hope that focus groups, qualitative interviews and surveys will shed light on the impacts of “unprecedented levels of workplace stress” on council CEOs and the extent it is associated with “negative outcomes for local government professionals and service delivery.”

Andrew Timming

Lead researcher from the University of Western Australia Professor Andrew Timming told Government News the research was sparked by what was seen to be a sector-wide problem.

“Local government, especially at the professional level, is in a unique situation in that they’re subject to stresses that many other workers are not– for example, CEOs have to answer to the local councillors, and so they’re being put under a huge amount of pressure from councillors but also from the public,” he said.

“You have the council beholden to the interests of public and of course that’s the way it should be but sometimes that dynamic means that the public feels that they have a right to treat local government professionals in a way that’s ironically unprofessional.”

If this article has raised concerns for you contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

This article has been updated since it was originally published. 

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10 thoughts on “Council CEOs ‘hung out to dry’ on stress burden

  1. Can self-induced/inflicted circumstances be assessed as stressful and blame attributed to others and other factors, or should one accept responsibility for one’s own actions? I expect much of the stress Dr Silcox experienced was a direct result of his own actions, his attitude towards ratepayers (or “customers” as CoM peferred to call us) and a similar culture developed among the staff at City of Melville – for which he as CEO must take full responsibility!

  2. As an active member of the community living in the City of Melville I would be very happy to cooperate or contribute to Dr Timings research into local government dynamics.

    In particular, I could add value to comments in this article relating to the City of Melville and Dr Shayne Silcox.

  3. There are no financial constraints in the City of Melville, this in fact is one of our greatest concerns. It appears former CEO Silcox is pushing his own agenda in order to build a story to defend his actions amidst investigations into the City and its staff by a Department of Local Government initiated Authorised Inquiry and at least two other independent State Government agencies.

    This article is clearly one sided.

  4. I think this is a terrific initiative Candy and I would trust that the research process itself – irrespective of the findings will be very helpful to understanding what can be a challenging area. After all council leaders, including politicians have such a challenge dealing with so many voices of varying decibels. It’s a role that is not for the faint hearted and we should support this learning process wholeheartedly. Well done.

  5. Clearly due to the serious issues as noted by Auditor Generals reports far too many have been promoted to high ranks who don’t have the necessary skills, experience or competencies required and few councils run appropriate Position Descriptions with clearly determined outcomes. … Public servants are OUR employees… arrive with the skills, knowledge and experience and get the job right or face termination.

  6. I attended a follow-up LG Pro meeting in June on a similar theme; the problem is huge. I admit bias as I asked Shayne if he would agree to be my mentor when I accepted a job as CEO from another state. He accepted without hesitation and gave me any amount of assistance I requested. Not only has Melville lost a great CEO, so has the industry.

    With regard to the bullies out there, you forget that we are people not just positions. I have lost good staff because of bullies who think that staff are fair game 24 / 7. Some staff have been attacked personally when picking up their kids from school.

    Don’t think for a minute that this problem is restricted to the metro area, the vicious and vile and downright stupid are alive and well in the country. The challenge in the country is, you are not anonymous, you get to eyeball these individuals when you go to the IGA. In the city, the chances are your next door neighbour doesn’t even know you work for the council. However, what I find is that most of them can’t hold your gaze.

    My council recognises the noisy minority are simply that. Despite calls on social media for me to be run out of town, demonstrated their support for their CEO by extending my contract for a further five years recently. I am one of the lucky ones.

    This is my private opinion, not necessarily that of the council.

  7. Excellent initiative Candy. As a professional I have worked in all sectors (private, state and local government) and the scrutiny, pressure and unjustified accusations I have experienced in local government far exceeds anything that I have experienced in any of the other sectors.
    I would NEVER accept a position as a CEO at any council purely because of the unjustified and unreasonable pressures put onto CEOs (and their executive teams).

  8. Life is tough at the top in any organisation so it is to be expected that CEO’s would experience a high level of stress – particularly those in large local governments. Thanks to a garbled Local Government Act, the reporting/accountability relationship between a CEO and his/her employing Council is not clear. Extensive delegation of functions to CEO’s by Councils creates a parallel universe where the Council is open to public scrutiny but the CEO acting independently and discretionally is protected behind a wall of policies, procedures, local laws and Regulations. On the other hand Councils are protected by the Local Government Act from public accountability other than at election time. But the Ward system ensures entrenched councillors are likely to remain entrenched because ward elections are won on small numbers of votes – often from grateful sporting clubs and NFP association members and supporters. CEO’s have no power over their employing Council and must walk a fine line between what is lawful and what is politically expedient in service of their masters. My own experiences – detailed in my website – demonstrate how local governments work behind a protective wall to enable decisions to be made covertly and discretionally in such manner that all is revealed only after it is all over. This is what is called “openness and transparency”. So CEO’s if you want to reduce your stress, do your work openly and publically so we, the people whom you serve, are brought into the fold as partners for long term community building. You are not the fountain of all knowledge. We have a Communist style system of local government where the wise few make the decisions on our collective behalf and expect us to be grateful – we need better. Finally, in relation to Rates, Parkinsons Law says “expenditure rises to match income” – is as simple as that.

  9. Maybe we could get a parallel study undertaken by UWA on the stress on ratepayers who try to extract information from their City CEO. All the stress none of the $200,000+ salary for those suckers.

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