Wellbeing tsar reports increased civil service anxiety

Written by Jim Dunton on 1 November 2018 in News
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Jonanthan Jones flags progress with key indicators developed in conjunction with departments

Credit: Pixabay

The civil service’s health and wellbeing champion has reported a rise in anxiety among Whitehall staff in a blog marking the first anniversary of a government-commissioned report designed to promote better mental health in the workplace.

Jonathan Jones, who is also permanent secretary at the Government Legal Department, was updating civil servants on the readings from the “health and wellbeing dashboard” developed last year in collaboration with departments.

Jones, who has held the wellbeing champion role since 2016, said that two of the dashboard's six key indicators had improved, three had stayed the same, but the one that represented personal wellbeing had deteriorated since 2016, reflecting higher anxiety and “lower happiness levels”.

The perm sec did not make a connection between the impact of Brexit pressures on Whitehall and the downshift in personal wellbeing recorded by the index. But Whitehall union Prospect was less circumspect, dubbing the downturn “little surprise” in the light of Brexit pressures and the public sector pay freeze.


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Jones’s blog comes one year on from the publication of Thriving at Work, the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, which suggested that mental health problems cost UK businesses up to £42bn a year in lost productivity.

The review, which was not limited to the civil service – or even the wider public sector – said mental health issues could cost up to 300,000 people their jobs every year.

At the time, then-Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood pledged to implement an upgraded programme of mental health support for the civil service's 420,000 staff, based on the report’s recommendations.

Writing today, Jones said that all departments had rated themselves against the standards in the report and that “collectively” their assessment amounted to an amber-green rating. 

“In practice, this means that most departments meet the majority of the standards, and have actions planned to fully meet the standards within the next six to 12 months,” he said.

On the six key indicators, Jones said the “index of flourishing” – which reflects positive emotions, engagement, relationships, a sense of purpose, and achievement – had improved compared to its end-of-2016 baseline, and average working days lost through sickness had gone down. 

Indicators remaining the same were average working days lost due to mental ill health, average working days lost through musculoskeletal disorders, and the “stress index”.

But Jones said there had been “a slight deterioration in personal wellbeing statistics, with higher average anxiety levels and lower happiness in 2017 compared with 2016”. He did not quote figures.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said that decrease in personal wellbeing was a direct reflection of the strictures imposed on departmental staff over the past two years.

“With burgeoning workloads and the civil service being singled out for continued harsh treatment on pay, as well as being used as a Brexit punch bag by politicians who should know better, it is little surprise that the results show ‘higher average anxiety levels and lower happiness’ levels on a year-on-year comparison,” he said.

“We call on departments to work with Prospect health and safety reps to understand and control the issues at work causing anxiety and stress.”

Jones said in his blog that numerous factors influenced wellbeing measures in the shorter term, and that cause and effect could not be conclusively proved.

He added that departments were now developing their own dashboards to reflect their unique health and wellbeing challenges. 

“These dashboards will feed into organisational governance boards to stimulate discussion and action and measure performance against the permanent secretary objective for mental health,” he said.

His full blog can be read here.

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