Mental health issues biggest long-term sickness cause at West Sussex County Council

County Hall Chichester. Pic S Robards SR2105051 SUS-210505-160437001County Hall Chichester. Pic S Robards SR2105051 SUS-210505-160437001
County Hall Chichester. Pic S Robards SR2105051 SUS-210505-160437001
Mental health issues continue to be the biggest cause of long-term sickness among West Sussex County Council staff.

A report to a council scrutiny committee showed that, in the last quarter of 2020/21, more than 12,600 days were lost to long-term sickness, rising to more than 14,200 days in the first quarter of this financial year.

In both quarters, depression, stress and anxiety were listed as the main reasons for the absences.

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It was an issue raised by Richard Burrett (Con, Pound Hill) who asked about the effect enforced working from home was having on staff.

He said: “I hope we will be gradually moving away from what’s happened in the last year to enabling teams to get back together again for the benefits they all gain – particularly newer staff – from networking.

“Hopefully we will be gradually moving away from that expectation of working from home.”

His concerns were echoed in the report, which said the ‘new normal’ of having to work from home ‘may adversely affect the mental and physical wellbeing – and emotional resilience – of staff which will lead to an increase in absences and poor service delivery to residents’.

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The council has around 5,500 staff across the county, the bulk of which are working from home.

Leader Paul Marshall spoke about the need to find the right balance.

He said: “I think there’s room for remote working but clearly people do need to work with people in a number of instances in order to effectively deliver the services.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable that we could ask 5,500 people to work from home. There’s got to be that balance.”

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Referring to the usually bustling County Hall, in Chichester, he added: “We’ve got a big building here. You come in here and it’s like a ghost town in a number of areas.

“I think there does need to be a bit more of a reconnection.”

Sue Evans, interim director of human resources and organisational development, agreed there needed to be a balance between office and home working.

But she also said there were benefits to giving staff the flexibility about the best place to work.

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She added: “There are still questions around government restrictions and guidelines and we are still dealing with a virus that is transmissible.

“So there’s a lot of juggling going on at the moment around establishing what’s the right level of occupancy for our buildings.

“We’ve asked teams and directorates to consider how they might want to implement smarter working going forward.