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Stafford planner "bullied" at work, widow tells inquest

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: July 15, 2014

Stafford planner "bullied" at work, widow tells inquest

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The widow of a Stafford planning officer found hanged has told an inquest she felt he was “bullied” at work.

Nicky Atkins challenged claims that 45-year-old Phil Atkins was only subject to “informal” monitoring following concerns about the standard of his work at Stafford Borough Council’s planning department.

“It wasn’t informal - that is not how Phil saw it,” Mrs Atkins said. “He was very distressed at work and worried about losing his job.

“They were very heavy with him and I feel he was being bullied there.”

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The inquest heard that Mr Atkins, a principal planning officer who had worked for the council for 27 years since leaving school, was so affected by the suicide of planning department colleague Susan Empsall 18 months earlier that he kept the order of service from her funeral in his car.

“He was very upset by Susie’s death,” Mrs Atkins told the inquest at Cannock. “There was quite inappropriate behaviour in reaction from the council since then.”

She asked coroner Andrew Haigh if he could take up issues raised at the inquest with the council. But he advised her to use grievance procedures.

“It is not a situation where I can send a report to Stafford Borough Council saying ‘look after your staff’,” Mr Haigh said.

Mr Atkins was found hanged in woodland off Kingsley Wood Road, Rugeley, on the fringe of Cannock Chase on May 3. His body was discovered by two people out walking their dogs, who raised the alarm.

His family had last seen him the previous teatime, when he had given them the impression he was planning to go out with friends.

Coroner’s officer Michael Smith said it appeared Mr Atkins was unhappy at work and had some problems in his relationship as well.

A blood test proved negative for drink or drugs and he had not had any contact with mental health services.

PC Gina Bennett said she had interviewed an HR manager at the council who said that issues with Mr Atkins’ work were being addressed informally. "There were issues with regard to meeting deadlines, but no reason to manage the situation other than in an informal manner," she said.

Mrs Atkins had also found three letters from the planning department “expressing some concern” about her husband's performance.

PC Bennett said Mrs Atkins had told her that the death of his colleague had a big effect on her husband.

“He kept the order of service in his car after the funeral, and put it in his bedroom about a week before his death,” she said.

He had been “quite low” in the days before he died, but was prone to low moods.

Mr Haigh concluded that the death was suicide.

“He was unhappy in his work,” the coroner said. “It would appear that the view of the council was that Phil’s situation was not as serious as Phil thought it was. But he was clearly very much distressed by what was going on.

“Not very long ago a previous member of staff at Stafford had killed herself and it is apparent that he was affected by that.

“There were other problems in Phil’s life and in his marriage, and he was affected by low moods at times.”

He added that Mr Atkins had not left a suicide note, and there had been no grounds for his family to think that he might kill himself.

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