Andrew Greenway: Departments taking flak for recognising civil servants are under pressure tells us a lot about Brexit Britain

Civil servants have always worked under pressure, but Brexit has upped the level considerably. Sneering at departments helping staff deal with stress benefits no-one, says Andrew Greenway

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By Andrew Greenway

13 May 2019

Working in the civil service has always brought a certain level of pressure. Background-radiation stress, you might call it. For many officials, Brexit has raised that background level from that typically experienced by a long-haul plane crew, up to, say, what Chernobyl’s postman has to deal with. Waft a Geiger counter over the Department for Exiting the European Union or No. 10, and it might melt.

Yet the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ decision to spend £40,000 on counselling services for civil servants met a mixed reaction from the press. Newspapers like the Daily Express  – an organ offering headlines that read like the ragged shouts of somebody in the process of having a serious breakdown  – were predictably unimpressed. “YOU pay for counselling for the poor loves in the civil service stressed out by Brexit,” it raged. Poor loves indeed.

Stress is a hard thing to admit to. It is difficult to say that the demands of a situation are beginning to exceed the resources you can bring. For civil servants, this is especially hard, because they are often highly resourceful people. When I was working in government I met more insecure over-achievers than I had anywhere else. As far as I was concerned, this was good – these were my people. Nevertheless, it was eye-opening to see how so many officials had become exceptionally good at channelling a certain level of stress into productivity. Often, they’ve been hired precisely because they are good at just that.


The conversations I have with friends still working in government now tell a different story about stress. For many, the light that they used to see at the end of the tunnel is now just another large train approaching. As befits all great British institutions, civil servants tend to be terrifically good at taking the piss out of themselves. This is in part a defence mechanism; laughing off the pressure, lightening their load. Those kinds of conversations are no longer the default. Many officials talk about their daily grind with numbness, rather than weary humour. Still more would rather not talk about it at all.

Many studies have been done on the nature of stress. In the workplace, it is usually attributed to one of two scenarios. The first is where people feel a clear time pressure in combination with a threat. This is classic deadline stress. Some people actively thrive on this, and wouldn’t be able to do anything without the squirt of adrenalin it provides. Civil servants have long been good at harnessing it.

The second, and more dangerous type of stress, is where this deadline pressure is compounded by a situation in which people are in high demand but have little control over their own destiny. The preparations for leaving the EU have served up a textbook example of this scenario for many thousands working in Whitehall.

Sneering at the stress currently experienced by officials is only possible if you believe two things are true: one, that the present political situation is basically quite straightforward; and two, that there are many thousands of people out there with more personal wherewithal to cope with it than those currently working in Whitehall. Anyone who believes either of those things clearly doesn’t care about the reality of government, but then, not caring about reality is one of 2019’s most popular poses.

It is easy enough to ignore tabloid hairshirtery though. The more troubling consequences of stress are less obvious. Studies have shown that self-confident types are likely to perform far better in difficult situations, enduring a gentler fight-or-flight reaction to acute stressors. Chances are it is the extroverts who are thriving in Brexit-gripped Whitehall. What that means for introverts’ prospects should be a concern. Why? Because our institutions need a diversity of perspectives to get a proper hearing in these tough times. Introverts bring different things to the table.

The other problem with Brexit stress is the fact that it has become chronic. Government is full of examples where officials have to deal with acute stress – a big speech, getting a bill passed, handling a national crisis, and so on. For a few weeks, the adrenalin kicks in and there’s a big push to get things over the line. Then everyone takes a breather, and the body returns to some sort of equilibrium. Some officials working on Brexit have been red-lining for over two years. Humans aren’t set up to handle that.

One happy truth about stress is that people – particularly the young and fit – are often remarkably resilient. Stressful times are painful, but can be recovered from without long-term effect, providing there is some end in sight. Whether civil servants choose to endure pain without an obvious conclusion is another matter.

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