Sunderland City Council logoCity of Sunderland: Stress audit and policy development

Taking action in diagnosed hotspots

While many local authorities have developed Stress Policies, very few have embarked on continuous improvement programmes that incorporate measures of success. In many instances it has been safer to work at a policy level rather than a practical level because:

  • Consulting staff and conducting stress reviews can open Pandora's box.
  • Once problems are uncovered, solutions may not be readily to hand.
  • Having a policy is comforting because if someone does not comply they can be held accountable.

Sue Stanhope, Corporate Head, Personnel at Sunderland City Council, and colleague Dave Rippon outline what has been achieved in closing the gaps between good policy intentions and the reality experienced by staff and their customers in the community.

The challenge

The impetus for uncovering health and safety threats in the organisation and addressing the risks directly comes from the Chief Executive, who draws on the value provided by our strategic HR initiatives.
We wanted to achieve a number of employee health and safety objectives and chose to start by using a diagnostic tool known as the Employee Wellbeing Survey (EWS) to achieve the following objectives:

  • Consultation with staff about their core concerns.
  • Creating a safer and more supportive work environment that helps Council employees to deliver excellent service to customers
  • Using staff opinions to inform strategy on organisational development
  • Fostering sound working relations with the union by playing open cards
  • Complying with HSE requirements and achieving good audit reports by doing the right things

Sunderland had previous experience in using staff surveys, but they did not provide the diagnostic information required for a stress audit, which we now obtain from EWS. We use an anonymous postal survey conducted by JQA which incorporates the diagnostic survey developed by Dr Jake Lyne and Dr Paul Barrett as the core and then combine the worthwhile elements of our old staff survey and any additional issues that are at the top of our strategic agenda, such as our focus on the customer.

The results

Sunderland were able to report against the HSE stress standards with confidence and have clarity on what they are doing with regard to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

This confidence is based on the following:

  • The high response rates of staff who complete the EWS provides confidence that they trust the confidentiality of the process and believe that the Council is interested in what they have to say.
  • The ability to benchmark responses of departments with respect to each other and to a national norm enables HR to pinpoint trouble spots and agree remedial action with responsible managers.
  • The information from the survey gave a much clearer picture of the organisation's culture and informed Organisational Development programmes outlined below.
  • Comparisons between scores on Psychological Health, Workload and Job Satisfaction enabled them to identify staff at risk of breakdown.

Results indicated that the majority of staff cope comfortably with their workload and enjoy a good measure of job satisfaction. About 80% of staff feel that they can communicate honestly with their manager and that managers were genuinely interested in their concerns. This was closely linked to their level of satisfaction and a sense of being valued by the Council. While the general picture was positive, there were concerns in particular areas, and resources and help could be channelled to rectify these.

Directorate/service responses

Every Directorate and some individual services were given comprehensive feedback on the survey results in the form of charts and reports as well as face-to-face workshops. They receive their data together with the best and the worst results in the council as well as the external benchmark provided by the EWS.

Responses have included:

  • Development and Regeneration directorate have engaged in a leadership development programme for key managers including a 360-degree appraisal process to close leadership behaviour performance gaps.
  • A number of long-standing difficult employee relationship issues including harassment are being addressed.
  • Education directorate identified training needs for 15 key managers and are supporting this development.
  • The Occupational Health Unit holds regular “case conferences” with each directorate to deal with specific instances of absenteeism, stress/anxiety cases.

Organisational development

Two themes emerged from the survey data when viewed from an Organisational Development perspective.

“One council organisation”The wide divergence in responses between directorates and services indicates that employees do not all have the same experiences in working for the council. This is largely attributable to different approaches adopted by managers.

The second cultural implication was found in the evidence that managers tend to distance themselves from corporate decisions. They see themselves as “going out to bat for the interests of the staff in their department” rather than “supporting the collective goals and vision of excellence in customer service”.

This analysis prompted the following interventions in the council:

  • At Sunderland, a “Leading Improvement” programme has, for the first time, brought all the council's senior managers together to engage in developing values, attitudes and behaviours to support transformation and team working.
  • Sunderland engaged Aston University Business School to undertake a research programme on “Silo Culture”, to support the objectives of the Leading Improvement programme.
  • Building on this, the “Sunderland Manager” development programme has been launched, which will form the core of all management development activities in the Council. The whole Executive Management Team has agreed to fund the programme and is fully committed to it. The programme is based on a competency framework, which focuses strongly on development needs identified by the survey.
  • The council previously held 12 different Investors In People (IIP) accreditations and has now achieved one standard as a whole organisation. This requires Sunderland to standardise processes and practices in relation to such things as communication, performance management, training and development.

Employee Empowerment – The Employee Wellbeing Survey has dispelled a widely held belief about the council's capacity to further empower employees. The staff survey confirmed that the vast majority of staff had a very clear understanding of their job role and many wanted more decision-making authority.

Here was clear evidence that contradicted the view held by managers that staff are already over-stretched. In fact, high workload was a problem experienced by many managers, while many non-managers were saying that they had capacity and wanted to take on more. The obvious solution is to get managers to delegate more effectively and employee empowerment has become a central theme in the “Leading Improvement” programme and part of the council's published vision statement.

Flexible WorkingThe survey provided an opportunity to measure the impact of flexible working opportunities on job satisfaction and psychological health. These data have given extra impetus to further developments in offering more staff flexible working options across the whole council.


Sunderland's commitment to providing a safe and healthy work environment and a culture that promotes motivation through job satisfaction gains new meaning because results can be measured. The results have been discussed in full with the union and the subsequent action taken by the Council has had the support of the union. The Council uses a variety of media to communicate with staff. Issues identified in the Wellbeing audit have been the subject of articles in these publications.

The Council are now in a position to track trends. This enables them to give credit and recognition for improvement and arrest negative trends by focusing help where it is most needed.