From the editor: we need to talk about burnout

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent pronouncements about civil servants are unhelpful, particularly against a backdrop of overwork and fatigue among dedicated officials
A serious case of deja-vu at CSW


Invocations of the 90s movie Groundhog Day are overbaked, but over at CSW towers it's easy to feel like Bill Murray’s jaded weatherman Phil, reliving the same experience day in day out.

While Phil is eternally doomed to report on the incomprehensible squeaks coming out of the film’s titular rodent, we are, it seems, eternally doomed to report on the incomprehensible squeaks coming out of various members of the cabinet or their anonymous “allies”.

The latest noises to emerge were from the new minister for government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who used a recent Times interview to question the worth of civil servants and gleefully hint that job cuts for these good-for-nothing officials were on the horizon. 

This kind of rhetoric from ministers has always been insulting, not to mention a terrible leadership strategy (see CSW editorials passim), but what makes it particularly depressing today is how many civil servants are in serious danger of burnout through overwork. 

Throughout the pandemic, they have run themselves ragged to keep public services going – often at great personal and emotional cost. The vast majority of officials care hugely about their work, which itself is a common factor in burnout: it stands to reason that if you care passionately about the service you’re providing, you are more likely to feel overwhelmed, exhausted and demoralised in a way that extends beyond the everyday stresses we all feel at work.

Too often, employees are told to deal with feelings of burnout by devoting more time to self-care. But, in a fascinating article by the psychologist Dr Justin Henderson, called “Self-Care is Not the Solution for Burnout”, the author points out that work environments, not individual workers, are the greatest contributor to burnout and worker turnover. “It is salt on the wounds of [...] people who are struggling to suggest that the problem is that they are not doing enough yoga,” he says.

The article is a general guide for all organisations, but its wisdom is particularly relevant to the civil service – no stranger to the “self-care” mantra. Of course individuals must look after themselves, but it’s high time government leaders started to examine the cultural and organisational factors that lead to burnout in the first place. 

One senior official CSW spoke to believes the recent three-year spending review settlement could hold part of the answer. “There should be a lot more certainty about how the civil service can run itself now,” he says. “We've been working hand to mouth year in, year out. And people don't really think about the impact of that, because, on the whole, civil servants have secure jobs. But in terms of being able to plan and resource properly, this is really important.

“There's something about the planning in the civil service as we come out of the pandemic, to make sure the right areas are supported, which goes alongside a three year SR settlement. What are our commitments? How do we get into a more sensible flow of work that allows people to become more relaxed in the job that they do?“

With allocations to departments being agreed right now, leaders should be finding out what funds they have got. The onus is therefore on perm secs to make sure that their departments take a more forward-looking approach to both work and workforce planning. 

“The civil service must call time on the expectation that has arisen, thanks to no-deal preparation and Covid, that officials will put in hours of unpaid overtime each week.  Achieving this will mean ruthlessly deprioritising.“

“The pandemic has meant endless uncertainty for two years,” the senior official says. “Actually, if you can now say to a department: ‘these are our priorities up to the next election,’ that will really help people.” 

The civil service must also call time on the expectation that has arisen, thanks to no-deal preparation and then Covid, that officials will simply put in hours of unpaid overtime each week. 

Achieving this will mean ruthlessly deprioritising, something the civil service isn’t always good at. But, as our contact points out, deprioritising is exactly what happens in the allocations process after a spending review. 

“You've worked out what your priorities are, your secretary of state has decided what they want to spend their money on. So why are you doing all these other things that there's no money to fund? There are obviously a number of statutory requirements that departments have to keep delivering. And those are funded to a certain level. But there shouldn't be all sorts of ad hoc programmes going on.” 

There will be hurdles: individual civil servants like to own programmes they've been running; junior ministers don't always follow what a secretary of state decides are the department’s priorities. But these are not insurmountable if perm secs demonstrate firm directional leadership. Doing so will provide the environment to keep staff focused on the things that matter and, crucially, keep them safe from burnout. 

As for those cabinet ministers who think now is a good moment to traduce the officials that are employed to serve them, they – like the groundhog after he’s made his rodential pronouncements about the weather – can get back in their box. 

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell - From the editor: Whether it's RAAC or climate change, governments must stop being so short-termist


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