A senior children’s social work manager has lost an employment tribunal claim against her former county council employer, which she said made her work excessive hours in a new role, forcing her to quit.
In a judgment published late last month from the July hearing, Judge Postle found there was “no evidence” Norfolk council failed to address Donna Ashdown’s concerns that she was putting in up to 70 hours a week as its head of social work operations.
Ashdown, who experiences swelling and fatigue in her right arm due to lymphedema brought by cancer treatment in 2001, was signed off for two months with stress soon after taking up the role in late 2015.
At the time, Norfolk’s children’s services had recently been graded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted inspectors, who identified “widespread weaknesses”.
After putting in her notice in May 2016 Ashdown sought redeployment into an independent reviewing officer (IRO) role, but raised a grievance against the council when it offered a six-month trial that involved significant driving.
She said the council discriminated against her and failed to make reasonable adjustments for her disability both before and after her resignation had been tendered.
But the judge found Ashdown had resigned because “she felt the job in the end simply was not right for her”, and that Norfolk council had made extensive efforts to accommodate her needs.
“The claimant, for the avoidance of doubt, did not resign because of factors relating to her disability,” Judge Postle concluded.
Before taking up the head of social work operations post Ashdown worked for Norfolk council as an independent child protection chair, which the tribunal noted involved some travel.
“Prior to the claimant’s promotion, there is no evidence the claimant was finding travelling distances a problem, either with her lymphedema or stamina,” the judge said, adding that Ashdown had no sick days between June 2011 and January 2016.
Ashdown gave evidence to the tribunal that, by the time she started her new job, staff were under intense pressure as a result of Norfolk’s recent adverse Ofsted judgment.
“The demands coming down from the director and assistant director set the hours,” she was quoted by the Eastern Daily Press as saying.
Judge Postle agreed Ashdown’s new job was a “demanding role” that could entail going above the contracted 37 hours. But, he said, she was able to manage her time as she saw fit and there was “no evidence” of her having to work “excessive or indeed 70” hours a week.
The tribunal heard Ashdown’s line manager Cathy Mouser, then Norfolk’s assistant social work director, appeared to have emphasised the need to limit her hours both before and after her two-month absence due to stress.
Ashdown raised the possibility of resigning with Mouser more than once during this period but, Judge Postle said, “The discussion appeared to centre around the claimant’s hours and diary management and not about her disability.”
On 23 May 2016, an appraisal of Ashdown recorded that she was “achieving progress” in her new position, and that it was clear she had the “skills to effectively perform” the role.
“There is no reference to problems with the claimant’s health, or any difficulties with [her] travelling by car or otherwise,” the judge said, noting Ashdown’s agreement with the evaluation.
But by this point Ashdown was considering her options, having enquired about IRO positions, and after Mouser asked her to make up her mind she tendered her notice citing the need to “prioritise my health and wellbeing”.
This led to a “confusing” situation, Judge Postle said, in which Ashdown was both working out her notice and pursuing an IRO job via another manager, Carey Cake.
In one email shown to the hearing, Ashdown agreed sessional work would be fine. But on learning that permanent posts might be available she pursued one of these, eventually being offered a six-month trial position covering the rural Breckland district west of Norfolk.
Ashdown accepted the post but simultaneously raised a grievance against Cake and Mouser saying she had been discriminated against and wanted a permanent IRO post, with no trial period and reasonable adjustments for her disability.
A dispute then ensued, with Norfolk withdrawing the IRO post due to the travel involved and offering various other options before a stalemate was reached in early 2017.
‘Claimant was allowed flexibility’
In summing up the various claims brought against Norfolk council, Judge Postle said there had been nothing compelling Ashdown to work excessive hours after gaining her promotion.
“Further, the claimant was allowed flexibility in the manner she performed her role, for example working from home,” the judge added. “The claimant accepted the work was not an issue.”
Judge Postle also decided Ashdown had suffered no disadvantage regarding the IRO post she was offered, noting she hadn’t previously raised her lymphedema as restricting travel, and that trial periods under redeployment were standard practice.
“It is clear, absolutely, that Miss Carey Cake never offered the claimant a post of [a substantive] IRO role,” the judge said.
Ashdown’s manager Mouser, Judge Postle concluded, had repeatedly discussed her work-life balance and was within her rights to request a quick decision around whether she would be resigning the head of social work operations role.
‘No fundamental contract breach’
“Given it was a senior post, it was not unreasonable to request the claimant make a clear decision one way or another,” the judge said. “This cannot be a fundamental breach [of contract and] the claimant did not see it as one at the time, given [the tone of] her response.”
Community Care asked Unison, which represented Ashdown during her grievance process with Norfolk council, for comment but the union declined.
A Norfolk council spokesman said: “It’s a well documented national issue that social workers are doing their jobs under considerable pressure, with growing demand for services, while budgets and resources have been reducing.”
The council was “committed” to supporting its social workers, the spokesman added.
“We understand the pressure they work under and have strong policies in place to help them achieve a good work life balance,” the spokesman said. “We are also investing £12 million in transforming our children’s services department, focusing on schemes that will help reduce demand for our services and reduce pressure on our social workers.”