Being a councillor is both a privilege and a tremendous responsibility and, as high-profile members of the community, councillors may experience abuse of varying severity during their term of office. These experiences can have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Middlesbrough Council noted the challenging environments and high-pressure decision-making requirements of the councillor role and decided to provide councillors with tools to support their wellbeing, including a tailored forum for councillors to raise concerns and access to 1-2-1 support and the council's staff wellbeing offer.
The number of people having a work-related stress illness has been rising year-on-year, which can have a long-term impact on employees. Although councillors aren't employees, they are often exposed to high-stress environments where the level of personal challenge can be high. Councillors are also expected to display good conduct and behaviour at all times and should respond correctly when dealing with the members of the public.
Balancing these requirements while also dealing with incidents of abuse or intimidation from the public can have a negative impact on councillors' mental health and lead to burnout or disillusionment with their council role.
Middlesbrough Council identified the risk of lone working and personal safety within their councillor community and explored ways to provide more support, focusing on wellbeing and post-incident aftercare.
The council has a robust health and wellbeing package offered to council colleagues, which was extended to councillors. In addition, the council expanded and amended the offer to consider the councillors' unique place within the overall council services. To that end, Middlesbrough Council:
- provides councillors with free of charge access to mental health professionals through a therapy network. This is available to councillors to help them process and recover if an incident occurs. It can also be accessed as a preventative measure if councillors feel they need support.
- offers 1-2-1 space for private discussions, operating an open and transparent atmosphere. This can provide an environment to decompress, work out a preventative approach to emerging issues and contribute to the wider collaborative working environment on these issues.
- provides wellbeing and mental health training to councillors. This provides valuable tips, tools, and tricks to support an individual within a pressurised environment, ensuring councillors are resilient and prepared for their activities in the community.
A councillor's role is unique; their place in the community means that the decisions they make and sometimes even their personal lives are under significant scrutiny. This can lead to personal attacks of character, harassment, intimidation, and even physical violence and confrontation on rare occasions. This can negatively impact the councillor and their family and friends.
Middlesbrough Council's approach acknowledges this challenging context and the consequent impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Councillors know what support is available and how to access it – this clear support structure helps to build individual resilience and provides councillors with the tools to handle the range of challenging situations they may encounter.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The approach has become a formal offering to new and established councillors, ensuring that the tools, support, and reference materials are available when needed and as a proactive measure. Councillors enjoy access to the same level of wellbeing support as officers; the offer is maintained and updated as part of the usual workforce offer.
In considering the impact of challenging situations on councillors, including safety incidents, the council recognised the clear need for wellbeing and aftercare support for councillors. In providing this support, the council acknowledged the importance of councillors' role and the value of helping them build their resilience to continue to represent their communities.