Minding your business: Is there a mental-health crisis in the civil service?

Following reports of a mental-health crisis, we explore the figures and talks to experts about coping strategies for individuals and the organisations that employ them

By Tim Gibson

06 Oct 2023

Is there a mental health crisis in the civil service? That was the claim made by Labour in April, citing a 38% uplift in mental health sick days among civil servants during the previous year. 

Figures obtained by the party through a Freedom of Information request showed that civil servants took 771,433 sick days due to stress or mental health problems in 2022, compared to 558,125 in 2021. They also highlighted an upward trend over the past decade – with the worst-affected departments including the Ministry of Justice, Department for Work and Pensions, and Ministry of Defence. 

Unions such as the FDA supported Labour’s analysis. Speaking to the Guardian, FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby said: “Excessive workloads and working hours are long-running issues in the civil service and have a huge impact on people’s mental health. The government should take this issue seriously and take concrete steps to better support staff.”

The FDA’s Is hybrid working? report, published in November 2022, brought some of the figures around workload into sharp relief. It found that 77% of respondents in the civil service worked at least some additional hours every week, while 26% delivered six or more extra unpaid hours a week. As many as 74% of those surveyed told the FDA that working excessive hours had adversely affected their wellbeing at least some of the time, noting burnout, poor sleep, weight gain and depression as symptoms associated with overwork. 

A wider context

To put the FDA’s data into perspective, consider a recent survey by Censuswide, commissioned by people analytics company Visier. This showed that 53% of all employees in the UK feel overworked, with 40% saying their workload has led to feelings of anxiety. Of those surveyed, 24% said they had reached their mental limit, citing issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and family responsibilities as exacerbating their condition. 

Other data sources tell a similar story. According to People Management, the magazine for Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development members, Google searches for “burnout symptoms” increased by 248% between 2018 and 2022. More scientifically, information from the Health and Safety Executive shows that the number of workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety went up from 602,000 in 2018-19 to 822,000 in 2020-21 – an increase of 38%. 

“53% of all employees in the UK feel overworked, with 40% saying their workload has led to feelings of anxiety” Censuswide survey

These figures establish a wider context, in which mental health issues are seen as a growing concern for all employers. The civil service may be experiencing a more acute version of it, but if there is a mental health crisis brewing, it is across society, not just in government. 

Building pressures

That is certainly the view of many in both the public and private sectors, who believe a multiplicity of factors has contributed to the increase in mental-health-related concerns among the UK workforce. 

“The pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, global political upheaval. No one has emerged unscathed,” says Flavia Gapper, director of help, advice and services at the Charity for Civil Servants. “Everyone knows the stresses we all operate under. They’re contributing to greater anxiety across our working population and beyond.”

“Covid was a huge factor,” adds Debbie Kleiner, a wellbeing coach who has written a course on mental health awareness for the Civil Service College. “We were all at sea, suddenly in different boats, and not sure how to respond. While we’ve slowly adjusted to a new normal, there’s still a huge collective trauma from that period, and ongoing work to understand our new context of hybrid working.”

This speaks of a specific challenge arising from our recent history: most employers, including many in the civil service, are now managing teams remotely rather than face to face. “This is a major issue,” Kleiner says. “Face-to-face interactions are so important [for] managing staff mental health. Work from home offers many advantages, but it is not always the best thing for employee wellbeing unless augmented by regular in-person contact.”

Further challenges provoked by hybrid working include social isolation and the potential for virtual communications to be misconstrued. To the former point, Kleiner says that many younger employees value the social interactions facilitated by attending their workplace – especially those who missed out during the Covid years. 

To the latter point, Gapper says that virtual exchanges between colleagues are often transactional, with less of the chit-chat that characterises face-to-face meetings. Moreover, she says, “there is potential to get worked up about things – a badly worded email or perceived impatience from a co-worker, say – in a way you wouldn’t if you could just go and talk it over”.

A vulnerable workforce

For all the contextualisation, there are specific circumstances that affect mental wellbeing among the public sector workforce, as the government’s former chief people officer Rupert McNeil explains.

“People who work for the state often deal with horrid stuff,” he says. “To give just a handful of recent examples, the government workforce has dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic, the evacuation of Kabul, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“At every level, from prison officers and teachers to senior officials or those in the security services, there are daily challenges that are often deeply unpleasant.”

“People who work for the state often deal with horrid stuff. From prison officers and teachers to senior officials or those in the security services, there are daily challenges that are often deeply unpleasant” 
Rupert McNeil

Added to this, McNeil observes that the public-sector workforce is often driven by a sense of duty and, in some cases, idealism. “People join the civil service because they have a vocation to serve the country,” he says. “That can make them more likely to become disillusioned if the reality of their role doesn’t match their expectations.”

Matt Dolman, a civil servant who has worked across several departments, as well as being a trained mental health first aider, makes a related observation. “The civil service is full of empathic people with high emotional intelligence, who want to do the right thing,” he says. “Mental wellbeing is often high up on the agenda among our workforce.”

McNeil’s analysis is more specific to the current context: “Any gap between practised and espoused values is bad for staff morale, whatever the organisation. We’ve also had periods of political leadership that have, with exceptions, not always appeared to understand or respect the civil service and the work it does. That has an inevitable impact on staff mental wellbeing.”

There is another factor at play, and it reflects what Gapper sees as a positive trend. “During the pandemic, we opened our lives to each other in new ways,” she says. “We all showed vulnerability, and that led to us being more honest about mental wellbeing. Maybe the incidence of mental health difficulties hasn’t increased, but our willingness to name them and report them has. 

“The Charity for Civil Servants 2022 conference on the menopause is a great example of this. Until quite recently, it would have been hard to imagine a senior leader standing in front of staff and owning up to experiencing brain fog. But that’s exactly what Angela MacDonald [deputy chief executive and second permanent secretary at HMRC] did. It was very powerful.”

A positive culture

This example highlights one the most effective tools in supporting staff wellbeing: modelling positive behaviours and attitudes at every level of an organisation. 

The civil service already has some great processes in place to enhance mental health. In 2021, permanent secretary Sarah Healey was appointed as the service’s health and wellbeing champion. Further institutional support comes from mental health ambassadors and mental health first aiders, who use their training and skills to support colleagues in a variety of ways. 

Dolman and Gapper also point to the networks that exist across the government workforce to support people experiencing specific issues, such as post-natal depression, bereavement, and child special education needs diagnoses. Then there are formal systems such as the Employee Assistance Programme, occupational health, and counselling, as well as additional support from the Charity for Civil Servants.

“Our offer is on top of the brilliant support available both informally and formally from the civil service,” explains Gapper. “For example, we provide 24-7 resources, support for specific issues including debt management, and ongoing help even once someone leaves the government workforce.”

Supporting the charity is itself a positive step towards mental wellbeing, according to Gapper. “We encourage teams to raise funds for our work, and that can foster a sense of engagement and community – all good for improving morale, creating connections, and enhancing self-worth.”

Managing well

By far the most powerful tool in supporting staff wellbeing is effective people management. Kleiner points to the HSE’s management standards as helpful in quality assuring a workplace’s environment from a mental-health perspective. 

“Every employer needs to invest in training for people at every level, but especially line managers, so they can fully support team members,” she says. “Good managers look out for their people. Empathy can be trained into them even if they don’t have it naturally.”

Effective performance management also plays a part and the public sector may benefit from the practice of comparable commercial operators in this area. Take the experience of David Tucker, chief executive of Fusion Fostering and a former social worker, as a case in point. As well as offering enhanced rewards, flexibility around working patterns and a full package of wellbeing support – something he acknowledges is easier when running an SME rather than a large public sector operation – Tucker and his team are proactive in managing staff performance. 

“In my time in the public sector, I noticed that performance issues were often allowed to fester,” he says. “We try to bring them out into the open, then support staff in working through them. Prevention is always better than cure, and we’ve found this yields improved outcomes, especially in relation to mental wellbeing. By keeping our staff engaged and productive, there is also less knock-on effect on those who would otherwise have to cover workload for unwell colleagues.”

Such an approach accords with McNeil’s view of effective management, which he says should be clinical in decision making and compassionate in execution. 

“We need workplaces that are performance-orientated but kind, to get the very best from the people who work in them.”

That summarises both the opportunity and the challenge facing the civil service as an employer in the current context. It needs to be focused on delivery and do right by its people, creating the conditions in which the whole workforce can flourish. And it needs to work with the grain of a large bureaucracy in a time of considerable change. 

“The harsh reality is that the civil service can’t always be as agile and flexible as a private-sector employer, nor offer the same sort of financial reward,” McNeil concludes. “But it can make sure it values its people, always treating them as ends rather than means. Get that right, and a lot of the other stuff will follow.”

As strategies for improving staff wellbeing go, this seems like a good place to start: valuing people, training and supporting managers, and being mindful of the challenges facing the workforce. Crisis or no crisis, they’re surely the hallmarks of the sort of working environment the civil service strives to be. 


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