Bounce-back in civil servants’ wellbeing since start of pandemic ‘stalls’

Only HMRC staff report better life satisfaction, happiness and sense-of-worth levels than in 2019, survey finds

By Jim Dunton

12 Jun 2023

Civil servants’ sense of personal wellbeing suffered a significant hit during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic and a rebound reported in 2021 has failed to keep momentum, a study has found.

Research commissioned by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing looked at Civil Service People Survey responses on wellbeing collected over the past eight years to map trends in government departments and agencies.

The study found that five years of improving life satisfaction, happiness and “worthwhileness” scores were wiped out in 2020’s People Survey results, with the equivalent of 20 years’ progress being lost. Meanwhile, reported anxiety levels rocketed by 14.2%.

The paper said the wellbeing and anxiety responses in the latest Civil Service People Survey, the results of which were published in March, showed that a bounce-back among staff that was reported in 2021 had not been sustained in the 2022 results.

Report author Michael Sanders, evidence associate at the What Works Centre and public policy professor at King’s College London's Policy Institute, said the 2021 People Survey results – published last year – had contained “substantial cause for optimism”.

“The direction of travel across the civil service pre-pandemic had been generally upwards, and although the pandemic had a substantial negative effect on wellbeing, around half of this drop had been recovered by 2021,” he said.

“This gave us cause for positivity around the wellbeing of civil servants into the future, with what trend data we had suggesting that the service could be fully ‘recovered’ from the wellbeing effects of Covid by 2022.”

However, Sanders said the latest data, based on survey responses from more than 346,000 civil servants that were submitted last autumn, showed that was not the case and that the wellbeing of staff had “stalled”.

Sanders said central government departments had a “particularly bad year” with more than a third experiencing drops in all four of the People Survey’s measures of wellbeing. Only HM Revenue and Customs recovered to its pre-pandemic levels of in terms of its life satisfaction, happiness, and worthwhileness scores. However, the anxiety levels reported by HMRC staff remained higher than they were in 2019.

Despite failing to better its pre-pandemic wellbeing scores, the Ministry of Defence topped a table of central government departments for the theme, based on staff feedback in the 2022 People Survey.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was bottom of the table of 18 organisations listed in the research.

Only 17 government organisations improved on all four wellbeing measures last year in comparison to 2021. The Ministry of Justice was the only central government department among them.

Sanders said that while some organisations were faring better than others, increased levels of anxiety among civil servants appeared to be a particular issue.

“Across the wider service, no organisations have fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels across the four wellbeing measures, with every organisation having experienced a rise in anxiety since 2019,” he said.

He added that 21 organisations had experienced positive change in each of the other three measures over that period.

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