Dave Penman: civil servants working long hours must be compensated

Recording the extent of Whitehall's long-hours culture is the first step to a better deal for civil servants


By Dave Penman

08 Jun 2017

Photo credit: PA

Since the FDA was founded nearly a century ago we have always sought to advance the interests of the civil service, as well as civil servants. It was in our founding principles. As regular readers of this column will attest, I’ve got a habit of banging on about the resources allocated to the civil service and the failure to match these with the demands the government is making of it. Brexit is just another element to throw in to this mix, albeit a pretty significant one. As the analysis continues, it’s clear that any outcome will have significant resource implications as additional demands are heaped upon the civil service.

Take just one example, in evidence to the select committee scrutinising our exit, HM Revenue and Customs estimated that leaving the European Union could mean up to a five-fold increase in customs checks at ports. That has implications not only for the civil service, but for every port, exporter and importer in the country. Get that wrong and freight is delayed, additional costs incurred and, of course, those all-important second-home owners stuck at Dover on the way to their gite in France, writing furious letters to the Daily Mail about the horror of it all.


Resourcing the civil service properly is about ensuring that UK plc works effectively and that will never be more crucial than over the period when we are leaving the EU. But as a union the FDA is also here to promote and protect the interests of its members. So when government gets the balance between resources and commitments wrong, it has a huge impact on the staff who are left to deliver ever more with ever less.

Each year we conduct a survey of members on their working hours. We ask a series of questions about their working patterns, the approach of their employer and the impact upon their lives. This year over 1,400 members responded, a record for our survey and 30% more than last year, perhaps a point worthy of note in itself. Contributions came from all the grades we represent, from almost every government department, agency and NDPB and from all four nations. The picture it paints is, unfortunately, all too familiar, but worthy of articulating nonetheless.

“Working long hours is like smoking: at some point it’s going to catch up with you. You may feel you’re getting away with it, but it’s having an impact on your health”

Here’s the sciencey bit. More than 90% of respondents said they regularly work more than their contracted hours, though only one in five said their employer kept a record of those hours. Just under 30% said they worked at least an extra day every week and 10% work more than 14 hours extra every week.

Worthy of repeating, that last one: one in 10 are working the equivalent of a seven day week, every week. Most of this is unpaid overtime. Although in some employers flexi time, time off in lieu or overtime payment systems exist, these can be cumbersome and, of course, if you take time off there’s no-one to fill the gap or, as one member put it, this “would lead to more out of contracted hours, in order to keep on top of my workload volume”.

This is a picture not of peaks and troughs, but systemic long-hours working that is having an impact on the public servants the country is relying upon.

More than two thirds of respondents had worked whilst on annual leave or sick leave in the last year and over 50% said they could not take their full leave entitlement. No wonder then that three-quarters of respondents thought that working excess hours had affected their wellbeing.

Sciencey bit over. What does this mean in reality? The result is a blurring of the lines between home and work with an impact on wellbeing, family and relationships. Technology has not only empowered flexible working but has also led to a 24/7 on-call culture. Senior managers and professionals are caught between setting the culture among their staff of work/life balance and being held to account for almost impossible demands.

I always think long hours is like smoking: at some point it’s going to catch up with you. You may feel you’re getting away with it, but it’s having an impact on your health.

Addressing this issue is one of the main priorities for us right now. We’re raising it with employers and to be honest we’re getting mixed responses. The solutions aren’t easy and it requires real commitment from both ministers and senior managers. One simple improvement we’re asking for is for employers to record and compensate staff for all hours worked. Doesn’t sound revolutionary does it? An employer should know how many hours its employees work and if they work more than they’re contracted to, they should be compensated. It could be time off or payment, but excess hours should not go unrecognised. This small step would do more than any plethora of laudable policies to address the long-hours culture that is blighting the service.

So as the new government wrestles with its manifesto pledges and that little ol’ problem of Brexit, more than ever Britain will need a strong civil service that doesn’t rely on the countless hours of unpaid overtime just to keep the wheels in motion.

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