Action needed to tackle stress at Shetland College

Steps are being taken to tackle long-standing problems of stress among staff at Shetland College amid complaints about working prac­tices and lack of support from management.

One anonymous staff source at the college told The Shetland Times relationships had been bad for some time with some employees recently off sick with stress while others had left because they could not put up with it anymore.

But while acknowledging there is an issue with stress, the college management denied it is serious and is putting in place a compre­hen­sive plan to address staff concerns.

The college received a largely favourable report last week from education inspectors who visited in March. They said the college was “well led” and made no comment about stress or poor morale in the 20 pages of their report.

The Shetland Times requested information from the council under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act in relation to two stress audits which were done at the college in 2005 and again last October. However, the request was turned down last week on the grounds that it was not in the public interest and the small number of people involved could lead to their identi­fication and possible action against the local authority for breach of confidentiality.

However, information from the most recent audit, which is still ongoing, was leaked to the newspaper and details the sort of issues causing problems. At a brain­storming session of the college’s stress focus group in December the 17 delegates reeled off 79 issues causing them stress.

They included: ? Management’s lack of trust in staff and a failure to learn from absences caused by stress; ? Staff not being consulted or forewarned prior to change and lack of communication about the future management of the college; ? Lecturers being told to teach courses without having the required knowledge or training; ? Too much paperwork and emails, poor communication and a lack of clear procedures; ? “Very poor quality” and irrelevant in-service training while specific training requests are blocked by management.

The college’s current director is David Gray, who also runs the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway. He was appointed three months ago when George Smith retired after running the college for five years since John McClatchey left unexpectedly.

Responding to this newspaper on Wednesday, Dr Gray said stress audits were common in the education sector and good practice in preventing as well as tackling any problem. But addressing the Shetland College findings he said: “None of these things can be ignored. They are there and people obviously feel that these are issues . . . and therefore we have to address them.”

He said the statistics showed stress at the college was currently only “slightly above the national benchmark” and he believed it was “a healthy organisation”.

Three working groups are being formed with staff to tackle the key themes of com­munication and management, administration and bureaucracy and working more efficiently and effectively.

The changes already include better communication within the college and monthly all-staff meetings, he said. The college has also started publicising itself on the Facebook and Twitter informal social networking sites.

Dr Gray said he hoped the changes would help build trust between staff and manage­ment. “I don’t believe that there should be this perceived divide between staff and management. At the end of the day we’re all one team and we’re all in it to ensure the learners get the best value for money and the best quality education we can deliver for them.”

The stress problem was discussed at the last meeting of the college board on 20th April. Mr Gray told members that the num­ber of issues raised in the stress audit meant the problem was “significant” but none were classed as particularly serious.

The stress focus group’s meeting in December was facilitated by the council’s safety and risk manager Sandra Pearson who started the health and safety stress audit in October and carried out the one in 2005.

She said the council took management of stress very seriously and follows a Health and Safety Executive-approved system to tackle it. A great percentage of solutions cost nothing, she said, and often required just a small change in working practices, com­munications and systems.

Ms Pearson was concerned that the confidentiality of the stress focus groups was being breached by the leak to the press, which she said could jeopardise employees’ faith in the system which allows them to speak freely without management being present.


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