New civil service stress index flags departments under the cosh

Written by Jim Dunton on 14 January 2019 in News
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HMRC grabs 2018 top spot, but new civil service-wide benchmark reveals unexpected findings

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HM Revenue & Customs tops the list of most-stressed departments as measured by a new analysis of staff responses the latest Civil Service People Survey.

The tax agency was closely followed by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice – but all were outranked in the stress stakes at sub-department level by Border Force and the Defence Electronics & Components Agency.

Staff at the Attorney General’s Office were the least stressed, according to the new “proxy stress index” metric, which brings together respondents’ answers to eight questions that are already part of the sentiment barometer but which was compiled for the first time in 2018.


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The Cabinet Office said the questions on workload, motivation, empowerment, team spirit, and harassment and bullying aligned with the Health & Safety Executive’s stress-management tool.

It said scores for the new index were calculated in a similar manner to the People Survey’s employee-engagement mainstay, often used as shorthand for the civil services “happiest” departments.

The Cabinet Office said the proxy stress index scores were inverted so they served as a measure of factors that added to stress rather than those that alleviated it – and meant that the departments and agencies with the highest scores were indicative of more stressful environments.

HMRC scored 33% based on its 2018 People Survey Results, the Home Office and MoJ scored 32%. At the top of the stress scale, DECA scored 41% and Border Force 38% – the same as the Scottish Prison Service. The AGO scored 17%. The civil service benchmark score was 29%.

Although the stress index is new, the fact that it is based on answers to questions that have been asked in the People Survey since its 2009 inception means that historic scores can be retrospectively pulled together.

Full historic scores for all departments and agencies have yet to be published, however HMRC’s People Survey data suggested its proxy stress index was one point higher than its 2017 score, while the Home Office said its stres index score was one point lower than the previous year. Border Force said its stress index score was down two points on 2017, while the Department for Exiting the European Union said its 26% score was down four points on the previous year.

Despite the lack of full department-by-department data, the Cabinet Office did publish backdated annual benchmarking scores going back to 2009. Surprisingly, the figures suggest that stress levels – at least as measured by the index – have never been lower.

The measure appears to show that the coalition government’s 2010 ascension to power was a much more stressful period for civil servants than the runup to the EU referendum and its aftermath.

The benchmark was 31% based on 2009’s People Survey results, but spiked to 38% the following year. It stayed at 30% for each subsequent year to 2016 – with the exception of 2013, when it rose to 31%. The proxy index was 29% in both 2017 and 2018.

Relatively flat levels of stress appear to be at odds with recent findings on anxiety and stress reported by civil service health and wellbeing champion Jonathan Jones and members of the FDA union.

In addition to the new proxy stress index, the Cabinet Office’s People Survey team also produced a “PERMA Index” for the first time in 2018, which aims to show the extent to which staff feel they are “flourishing”.

Based the work of US psychologist Martin Seligman, the PERMA model brings together five core elements of wellbeing and happiness with the acronym drawn from “positive emotion”, “engagement”, “relationships”, “meaning” and “accomplishment”.

The People Survey version uses responses to five questions that best reflect those sentiments in relation to civil servants’ attitude to their work, and ranks departments accordingly.

Of all departments, HMRC ranked the lowest in 2018 with a score of 70%, the AGO ranked the highest with a score of 81% – mirroring the findings of the 2018 People Survey's engagement index.

The Welsh Revenue Authority had the highest score of any listed agency, with 84%; DECA had the lowest: 66%.

While the civil service's benchmark engagement index score has increased year-on-year since 2015, the same was not the case for the PERMA Index.

The pan-civil service historic data suggested that PERMA Index benchmark dropped from 75% in 2017 to 74% last year after rising from 72% to 73% between 2012 and 2016. Scores for 2009, 2010 and 2011 were not available.

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