UK: Survey on well-being and stress of civil servants

Changing patterns of work organisation for civil servants in the UK are examined in a new report based on surveys of union members. Its recommendations could have wider applicability in the public sector because, since the research was undertaken, the right to request flexible working arrangements has been extended to all employees.

Longer hours, poorer work–life balance and greater stress

The PCS workload and work–life balance survey 2013 (2.05 MB PDF) was conducted by Dr Steve French of the University of Keele on behalf of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). The research was published on the PCS website in December 2014. The PCS represents nearly 250,000 members (approximately 150,000 women and 100,000 men) in the civil service and government agencies. It also organises in areas which were formerly in the public sector and have been privatised. According to the TUC Directory 2015, PCS is the largest civil service union and the seventh largest union in the UK.

The survey sought to examine issues of working time, working patterns and workload, as well as the effects of work organisation on issues such as stress, ill health and work–life balance. It also sought to examine and assess the potential impact of Cabinet Office proposals on the jobs of PCS members. The 2013 survey is based on a previous survey of PCS members conducted in 2006. The timing of the two surveys allows some interpretation to be made of the effects of the financial crisis and subsequent recession, and of the change from a Labour government to the Conservative-dominated coalition government in May 2010.

As the report notes, workload, working time and related issues were especially important in the context of the coalition’s policy of austerity. Between March 2008 and March 2013 civil service headcount was reduced by 13% and, although some work was contracted out during that period, the overall picture suggests that managers in the public sector need to secure greater levels of productivity from workers in order to maintain levels of service delivery. Therefore, studying workload and working time provides insights into the managerial practices within the civil service. The second issue examined is the extent to which the demands for higher levels of productivity are affecting work–life balance and well-being.

The report is sponsored by PCS and, with that in mind, its findings are intended to inform the bargaining agenda for PCS negotiators and workplace representatives on issues such as performance, equality, health and safety and flexible working practices. The findings also provide a benchmark for further changes which are due to be introduced for civil service employees. In addition, the findings may offer some insights into processes of change in the wider public sector, especially around work intensification and increases in workload associated with the policies of austerity and reductions in public spending.


The survey was a national internet-based survey carried out between 19 August and 30 September 2013 and it generated 4,827 responses from PCS members. Questions examined the working time, working patterns and workload of PCS members; the impact of workload on their behaviour at work as well as stress, ill health and their work–life balance. A similar survey was conducted in 2006 and it was used as a comparison to assess the effects of the financial crisis and the change in government in 2010.

The research sample of 4,827 responses was large. Analysis shows that the sample is broadly representative of the PCS membership and the wider civil service in terms of gender, age, working patterns and contractual status. Ethnic minorities are underrepresented, and those self-identifying as disabled slightly overrepresented. Some 86% of respondents identified themselves as ‘ordinary’ PCS members (not having a representative role within the union). The 2006 survey had been smaller, with 1,597 responses, and it overrepresented members working in London, the South East and the Midlands and those on part-time contracts.

Key research findings

There were several key findings.

  • PCS members, especially those on full-time contracts, are experiencing longer working hours and increases in workload.
  • 29.2% of workers feel unable to control the hours that they work (compared with 11.8% in 2006).
  • 71.7% of members report that they have difficulties balancing their family or private lives with work, with 21.0% stating that this is a problem all, or almost all, of the time.
  • Attitudes and take-up of work–life balance options reveals a mixed picture. Family-friendly and flexible working policies are found to be more effective than other workload management policies, and are considered by respondents in 2013 to be more effective than in 2006. However, take-up of these options is limited because of concerns about reduced pay, lack of availability of the options for some job grades and management refusals to offer them. Although availability of flexible working increased, so did management refusals to allow them. Members may also be deterred from asking management for flexible options, fearing this may damage their career prospects.
  • Stress levels and stress-related absences appear to have increased since 2006. The proportion of members claiming that they experienced work-related stress more than half of the time increased from 10.8% in 2006 to 22.4% in 2013.
  • Members in the 2013 survey are far more likely to have taken time off work as a result of stress (65.5% compared with only 15.8% in 2006). Furthermore, more than one-fifth of these workers have taken more than 40 days absence because of stress. The proportion reporting that they took over 20 days absence due to stress-related ill health increased from 24.6% in 2006 to 31.0% in 2013.
  • 55.4% of members claim to attend work when they are ill (up from 38.8% in 2006) and 15.7% report having received medical advice to reduce their hours (compared with 6.3% in 2006).

Discussion of the findings

Overall, the report paints a rather negative picture of the changes which have occurred in the UK civil service between the two surveys. Workloads are increasing and so are the numbers of people working unpaid overtime, and mechanisms to regulate workloads, targets and deadlines are largely ineffective. The result has been an increase in work-related stress and time off for ill health. Indeed, four times as many people took time off for stress in 2013 (65.5%) as in 2006 (15.8%). It is also noted that the Cabinet Office proposals for job reductions in the civil service have yet to take full effect, so working conditions may be expected to deteriorate further.

The report considers the implications of the findings for the strategies of PCS negotiators and workplace representatives. It argues that there should be greater monitoring of the use of flexible working practices, including the numbers and patterns of rejected requests. Moreover, senior managers should establish that appropriate flexible working practices are open to all PCS members and that local line managers do not effectively ‘veto’ the use of these policies. PCS should use the recent extension of the legal right to request flexible working to bargain for greater transparency and fairness and to ensure that changes are not made to the contracts of workers who already make use of flexible working options. PCS should be monitoring the impact of further changes in contractual arrangements using Equality Impact Assessments and scrutinising the outcomes, especially for legally protected groups.

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