Why stress could undermine public sector reform

The CIPD says public sector staff get more stressed and take more stress-related absence. And that's before the cuts.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
If the public sector really is going to protect front-line services in the face of all these departmental cuts, there's no doubt that productivity will need to improve markedly. But according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, there's a big problem with that. Stress-related absence is already a major problem in the civil service - so what's going to happen in the coming year, when they've got even more stuff to be stressed about?

The CIPD's latest Absence Survey reports that 73% of manual and 79% of non-manual public sector staff count stress as one of their top five causes of absence - almost half as high again as the overall average - while 56% rated restructuring as a major cause of stress, compared to the across-the-board average of 39%. What's more, public sector staff tend to have more time off when they're stressed, taking an average of 9.6 days per employee. That's a full two days more than the average across all sectors (and three days more than in private sector services businesses, by way of comparison).

In other words, this survey suggests that public sector workers are already more likely to get stressed (particularly if there's restructuring going on), and that the impact on the organisation is greater when they do. We're talking about a financial cost of nearly £900 per person per year, according to the CIPD.

Now admittedly, we're talking about some incredibly stressful jobs here - police, teachers, social workers, nurses and so on. But that's still a big discrepancy. And either way, you can see the problem the CIPD is highlighting here. With most departments having to slash their budgets by a third, there'll be an awful lot of restructuring going on. So if anything, you'd expect more stress-related absence in the coming year - which is hardly ideal if you're trying to squeeze more productivity out of your remaining staff.

You might argue that this is hardly new news. And you'd be right. But is there anything we can do to solve the problem? Well, the CIPD warns that employers mustn't cut their health and wellbeing programmes now, even if money's tight: they need to invest in things like staff surveys and workshops, flexible working options, and so on. And, as it points out, this is in no small part a management issue: badly managed staff are more likely to get stressed, so the public sector needs to keep spending on management training too. The trouble is that when you're tring to chop your budget by a fifth, this kind of thing will seem all too easy to cut...

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