Local government CEOs are experiencing stress levels three times that of miners, police and emergency workers, research shows.
Dr Andrew Timming and a team from the University of Western Australia conducted a series of open focus groups and confidential face-to-face interviews with CEOS, as well as conducting surveys used to evaluate psychological and mental health problems.
“What we found is that the CEOs in WA reported levels of stress that were essentially three times what would be considered for traditionally dangerous occupations like mining, construction, police and emergency services,” he told Government News.
“What we’re talking about is really significant mental stress problems among local government CEOs in the state, well above what clinical pyschologists would consider healthy levels.”
Some CEOs reported being driven to the point where they had considered taking their own lives, Dr Timming said.
“The level of distress evidenced by the CEOs that we spoke to is at the level where any clinical psychologist would be concerned,” he said.
“There were cases of suicidal ideation and self-harm. There are people that I would consider to be under a severe level of distress.”
Culture of bullying and intimidation
Dr Timming said the primary causes of stress included “strained” relationships with elected members, hostility from rate payers and bullying, harrassment and intimidation.
The problems were worse in metropolitan than regional areas.
A key problem is that elected officials often lack the skills needed to manage their CEO and the wider council, Dr Timming says.
“There’s a case to be made that when you have a set of people making managerial decisions with little or no training in management decision-making, its a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Another issue was a “black hole” in workplace health and safety legislation around local government CEOs.
“CEOs are caught betwixt and between in the sense that they really have no one to turn to,” Dr Timming said.
“There’s a very curious case of who actually is their employers? Are we as the ratepayers the employer? Is it the state government? Is it the local council itself? When it’s not clear who the employer is, it’s very easy to evade the responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace.”
He said the current review of the state’s local government legislation offered a timely opportunity to ensure CEOs had the same access to health and safety regulations as everybody else.
Findings likely to be replicated nationwide
Candy Choo, the CEO of Local Government Professionals WA, believes this is the first study of its kind in Australia and possibly the world.
“We’re trying to show through the research the other side of local government that people haven’t seen before,” she told Government News.
“What we don’t often talk about is the pressure and lack of resources and the demand that is being put on chief executive officers in local government.
The results would most likely be common across the nation, she said, based on anecdoates and conversations she has with her counterparts in other states.
She said LGProWA hoped to use the research to push for better protection for CEOs through the Local Government Act and the WA Occupational Health and Safety Act.
“Every single worker, CEOs included, has the right to a safe workplace that is free of bullying and harassment,” she said.
Read the report here.
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