Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Labour officials investigated stress among council workers

Doug McKay. Photo / Richard Robinson
Doug McKay. Photo / Richard Robinson

The Government's labour service has made inquiries about work-related stress at the infrastructure and environmental services department at Auckland Council.

Acting on a complaint in May, health and safety inspector Dennis McCracken found the council was aware of the problem and taking action.

"No action was necessary as the employer [council] was aware of its obligations and had an effective process in place," said Linda Wilson, a labour team leader at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Council chief executive Doug McKay said "appropriate action" had been taken to address the problem, but was not more specific.

The Herald has learned of several cases of work-related stress at the department, which has about 400 staff managing stormwater, waste management and environmental services.

One infrastructure and environmental services (IES) employee said many staff were too fearful to carry out their roles effectively and some were taking leave on account of stress.

The stormwater unit's accident/incident summary for May shows three staff reported work-related stress and receiving specialist medical help.

Medical records show one of the three saw his doctor on May 10 and was diagnosed with a suspected nervous breakdown and referred to a psychologist for stress management.

A meeting of solid-waste managers on April 20 to discuss a staff survey reported stress, the department culture and the fear factor among the reasons for poor results.

A member of the biosecurity team has also been away on stress leave.

Two months earlier, the council released the findings of an investigation by employment lawyer Penny Swarbrick to four IES managers who complained in October last year about the behaviour and management of the IES department.

Ms Swarbrick found six cases in which the behaviour of department boss John Dragicevich fitted the council's definition of bullying.

She also upheld a complaint about a climate of fear in the department, saying it appeared to be significant.

Yesterday, Mr McKay appeared before the chief executive review subcommittee for a three-monthly performance review where he briefed Mayor Len Brown and 12 councillors behind closed doors on reports of bullying allegations in the Herald.

In a subsequent interview with the Herald, Mr Brown and Mr McKay explained that a "high-change, high-pressure environment" of bringing eight councils with different cultures into a single council was responsible for creating some employment disputes.

"That does not excuse any single case of bullying or harassment," said Mr McKay.

Out of 6000 council staff, there had been complaints of bullying against five, he said.

Since the Super City came into being in November 2010, there had been 36 exit settlements at a cost of $637,000. Nearly $300,000 of that was for two complainants who resigned in the Dragicevich case.

"Our culture is work in progress. There is no evidence of any systemic problem ..."

- NZ Herald

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