Marryatt: Extra leave helps avoid burnout

Christchurch City Council boss Tony Marryatt
Christchurch City Council boss Tony Marryatt

Christchurch City Council Chief Executive Tony Marryatt defends his decision to introduce extra paid leave for council staff. He says the result will be a more stable, committed council workforce, better able to meet the challenges of the coming years.

There has been much media interest in the past week over my decision to offer additional leave days to council staff in recognition of the challenges of the past two years and all the work still ahead.

This was not a decision made lightly. My executive team and I have been considering for some time how to address the growing issue of staff stress levels.

Everyone in our city is facing similar problems but, in many ways, the council is unique. We need to deliver all our usual services to keep the city functioning and, on top of this, we've had a massive increase in earthquake-related work. Our annual budget has increased from $650 million to $1.4 billion and we need to find a way to deliver the extra work.

The council is a lot like most residents in Christchurch right now. Residents are working through their house repairs, negotiating with insurers, facing uncertainty about when repairs will happen and wondering what it will cost. The council is facing similar pressures to fix damaged assets on a much larger scale.

Staff working across dozens of service areas are co-ordinating the repair of 1600 facilities, hundreds of kilometres of damaged underground pipes and roads and the restoration of many other services. Every day I come into work and see busy people doing their best for our city. I also see how tired our people are becoming and I won't ignore this.

Our people are our greatest resource and I am incredibly proud of the work that council employees have done for this city. We can not afford to lose the expertise, institutional knowledge and city understanding that sits with our staff. International examples show us that, if we don't act now, this is exactly what will happen.

Our councillors went on a fact-finding mission to San Francisco last year to learn how the 1989 earthquake had affected the United States city.

They were advised that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans had lost every single management-level city official within five years because they had burned out, left the city or, in the worst cases, died.

Following feedback from the majority of the councillors who travelled to San Francisco in 2011, we introduced earthquake days for staff. We gave one day a month as special leave to staff between July and December 2011 to reflect the extra stress the organisation was under. We chose not to continue with the earthquake days in 2012.

This year we have noticed staff turnover increasing, sick leave rising and a five-fold increase in use of our internal staff support counselling services.

We began to wonder if staff could actually continue the important work they had been tasked with and what could be done to address the problem.

We decided to introduce Staff Support Days - additional leave of one day a month over the next year.

I stand by this decision. The result will be a more stable, committed workforce, better able to meet the challenges of the coming years.

The leave days will not impact on our levels of service. Libraries will remain open, phones will be answered, assessments and repairs on our damaged facilities will continue and complex decisions will be made.

Staff will manage their workloads and take the days when it works best - everyone will pitch in to make it work.

In fact, our experience is that earthquake leave in 2011 resulted in a drop in sick leave taken, from absenteeism of 3.7 per cent before to 2.3 per cent by the end of the period. After the leave days stopped, that figure rose again to a peak of 4.8 per cent by mid-2012.

My actions in recognising the hard work of my staff have caused something of a stir in the local media over past days. As a result, I realise a number of staff have had to defend the leave days to acquaintances and I am troubled by this.

Our organisation plays a vital role in the recovery and rebuild of our city. It is imperative that I have engaged and motivated staff during the years ahead. The pressure is on, work hours are up and demand is great - and this is all on top of the personal challenges that everyone living in this city is facing right now.

I can't allow this organisation to burn out in the short term and fail to meet our city's long term needs.

The Press