Report reveals council stress a concern

Jacinta CantatoreHarvey-Waroona Reporter
Murray shire president David Bolt, Murray-Waroona chief executive officer Dean Unsworth and Waroona shire president Mike Walmsley.
Camera IconMurray shire president David Bolt, Murray-Waroona chief executive officer Dean Unsworth and Waroona shire president Mike Walmsley. Credit: supplied

Work-related stress and psychosocial distress nearly three times the national average are the price of being a local government chief executive officer, according to a study into the sector.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have found shire council chiefs across WA are facing unprecedented levels of work-related stress.

The joint chief of the Waroona and Murray shires Dean Unsworth said this stress was compounded if a local government council’s members were aggressive or did not work together.

Harvey shire president Paul Gillett agreed council dynamics and a lack of resources were a factor in increased stress.

The study’s lead researcher and UWA Business School associate professor Andrew Timming, said immediate changes were needed.

“The current way of doing things is not protecting their health and safety,” Dr Timming said.

“Urgent reform is needed not only to safeguard the wellbeing of chief executive officers, but also to ensure ratepayers are enjoying the benefits of new protections that will increase the productivity of local government,” Dr Timming said.

Cr Gillett said he had seen first-hand the impact of this stress.

“I’ve seen a chief executive officer who had a huge amount of pressure applied to him who ended up having to take 12 months off for stress leave,” Cr Gillett said.

“Gone are the days where local councils are just rates, roads and rubbish. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes.”

Mr Unsworth said local governments provided about 200 different services to a community, and while his role was satisfying, it could also be stressful.

He is well-placed to make this assessment, having been made the chief executive of the Waroona and Murray shires in August as part of a 12-month trial, after serving as the Murray shire chief for 12 years.

“Working for the community is a privilege and very satisfying when you can have a small part in something that makes a difference to a person, or peoples’ lives,” Mr Unsworth said. “Now more than ever, communities want to be involved, have a say and want information.

“This is a positive, but the demands from these areas has increased and thus made the work environment more dynamic and fast-paced.”

He said local government stress levels had been in the headlines recently, but credited his own community-minded and “cohesive” shire councils to easing some of that pressure.

“With some of the news stories, the stress becomes extreme when there is a divided and aggressive council that is not working as one unit and pushing the boundaries of the requirements of the Local Government Act,” he said.

“Also, the personal liability to a chief executive in terms of breaches of the Local Government Act and the Bush Fires Act, whether it be personally or of their staff, can be significant.

“Luckily, the shires of Waroona and Murray both have very cohesive councils who are there only to provide service to their community and not for political reasons.”

Mr Unsworth believes regional chiefs have more job satisfaction than some of their metropolitan counterparts.“Those bigger city CEOs are not (able to be) as close to the community.”

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails