Disciplinary action and the impact on mental health

As previously reported, WSCC is consulting UNISON on merging three of its most important policies (sickness, disciplinary and capability) into one single policy.

UNISON is very concerned about this as we believe there will be considerable scope for staff to understand less well the processes they are being subject to. We also said in the last issue that we had concerns about the way the disciplinary policy was being used by the council in practice. This included concerns about delays resolving cases and the impact this has on staff after several worrying reports from members who had been suspended for a very long time without progression in their cases.

It is still the case that discussions are taking place with UNISON on disciplinary practice and the single formal action policy, after a hiatus of some months.

Meanwhile, a freedom of information request to the council to find out how efficiently its disciplinary processes worked during 2018-19 revealed some worrying trends.

  1. There were 58 disciplinary cases in total but only 7 (12%) were resolved within 28 days;
  2. Of 51 disciplinary cases not completed within 28 days, the average length of the process was 5 months.

For those staff waiting 5 months or more for their case to be concluded, it begs the question: how many of them were suspended on full pay from the public purse because the council was unable to expedite their cases? Not only is taxpayers’ money being used in this way, but the impact on staff mental health is often totally unacceptable.

Mental health impact

One such case involved a UNISON member who went through the disciplinary, grievance and capability processes. They were also on long-term sickness absence due to the stress primarily caused by the council’s poor handling of these procedures.

Our member had been suspended for a whole year. There was no proper welfare contact from the council. Our member could not return to work after the verdict because they had been made mentally unwell by the experience. This was reinforced by doctor’s notes to the council explaining the impact of the seemingly endless suspension on our member’s mental health, but to no avail.

The council had insufficient capacity to conduct the investigation. In addition, data breaches were made as our member was sent letters from the council intended for other staff about their disciplinary meetings.

HCPC (the Health and Care Professionals Council) completed their investigation after the disciplinary process, which they were obliged to do. HCPC found no evidence of wrongdoing. The process had taken two and a half years from start to finish but the case was thrown out immediately by HCPC.

My message

Our member said: “If I had one message to the council it would be that they must do more to be both consistent and fair. They should respect staff more than they do and recognise the difficult jobs we do. It felt to me like they were grasping at ways to incriminate and blame staff, rather than seeing the bigger picture.

“I am now off medication. I didn’t have a full appreciation before of just how difficult mental illness can be and the challenges it brings. I had no history of mental health problems at all up to this point in my life. What this experience has done is make me permanently worried that I could have a relapse back to my depression, now I have experienced it. I’ll have to live with this worry for the rest of my life.”

“What I can say is that UNISON was brilliant. I can’t fault my rep whatsoever and without them I am sure I would have been sacked. UNISON supported me when I wasn’t mentally strong enough to understand what was going on within the process.”

UNISON’s recommendations

UNISON has provided a range of suggestions to the employer to improve their disciplinary process. However, at the time of going to press, it would appear that some of our main recommendations have been rejected by the council. They have proposed their own changes which we feel would be detrimental to staff. UNISON continues to work hard to try to bring improvement to the processes, and we will report the outcomes when reached.

Membership of UNISON is vital to protect you (and your professional status if applicable) at work. Join here.