EXCL: DWP civil servants describe ‘unbearable’ workloads amid ‘all-time low staffing’ levels

Pressures causing Department for Work and Pensions officials to skip breaks, work long hours and "leave in droves" or take long-term sick leave
Source: Alamy

By Tevye Markson

04 Dec 2023

Civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions report being overwhelmed by “unbearable” workloads due to “improper” staffing levels.

The impact of staffing shortages across department is revealed in a dossier, seen by CSW, which contains 50 testimonies from officials.

In the document civil servants, many of whom work in Jobcentres, raise concerns about “all-time low” staffing levels, “unsustainable” workloads, “huge” backlogs, “inadequate” training and low pay. They also say vulnerable customers are “falling through the cracks” as a result.

Many of the officials also say they are experiencing low morale, depression and high stress due to the workloads and have had to take sickness leave as a result, while others are choosing to leave.

The 50 testimonies are a selection of the hundreds of comments PCS received from members when it asked them how the staffing crisis at DWP was affecting them. Earlier this month, the union called for the department to recruit 30,000 extra staff to tackle the “chronic shortages”.

Staffing levels at ‘all time low’

In the dossier, titled ‘Staffing crisis in the DWP’ , one work coach said staffing levels at their Jobcentre are “at an all–time low”, while another official working at a Jobcentre described the staffing level as “astonishingly low, stressful and unsustainable”.

Another said their Jobcentre is so short staffed that “most of us have around 230 customers to manage”.

The DWP has recently targeted run a targetted recruitment campaign aiming to triple the number of officials working on Universal Credit case reviews to to 6,000 by March 2025

This is aimed at  reducing the rates of fraud and error payments, but an official working in this area said the lack of fraud advisers means the work currently being done is "useless".

“My job is to establish if there is any fraudulent activity on a claim currently in place,” they said.

“If there is – I will then push it to a fraud advisor. As things stand, there are only four fraud advisors to support us. This has a huge impact on the workload as cases are taking months instead of days or weeks. It has a huge impact on the public purse as we are basically ignoring 90% of fraudulent activity. This essentially renders any Universal Credit review pointless – even if we find anything, there’s nowhere for the issue to go.”

‘There is no time to do the job properly’

Most of the testimonies described how the staffing gaps are causing unmanageable workloads.

A Job Centre work coach, who has worked at DWP for 22 years, said the workload is “unachievable and unbearable”, with a full diary each day that keeps being added to.

“The latest ask is upfront childcare costs – a complex process that can take an hour or more to complete and entail multiple appointments,” they said. But the team has no diary space left to book them in.

“This process alone needs a dedicated team to deliver,” the official said. When they raised the issue with management, the official added, they were told “this is what [you're] paid to do”.

“I’m now only able to keep on top of my day–to–day work by coming in early and staying late,” they added.

Another work coach, this time in Universal Credit, said their workload is “unsustainable and has been for some time”.

“There is no time to do the job properly and you are always rushing with back–to–back appointments, many of which are just ten minutes long. I am finding I am not having a morning or afternoon break and this is now the norm in our jobcentre,” they added.

Another official, who has worked for the department for seventeen years, said they have “never known things to be as bad as they are now”.

‘Every day felt like drowning’ – the impact on officials’ health

Low staffing levels and high workloads are having a big impact on the health of civil servants in the department, who have described feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and experiencing burnout.

Officials describe having to work more overtime than they want and working extra hours for no additional pay, while others describe missing lunch breaks and even toilet breaks due to their workloads.

One official said short-staffing and high workloads at their service centre “hit crisis point” over the summer, with their team of case managers having around 18,000 claims between ten staff.

“This is already high but when you factor in peak leave and sickness, we spent a lot of the summer with around five people a day [processing] 3,600 claims apiece. Every day felt like drowning, getting upwards of 60 messages from claimants to deal with, on top of all the other work. “

They said this led to them having “severe” burnout, “constant” headaches when at work and “bad anxiety” and, “at its worst, it pushed me to self–harm and heavy contemplation of suicide”.

“Whenever we raised the staffing issue, we were told there was nothing to be done,” they added.

Another official, a compliance officer based in Liverpool, said their workload has gone up tenfold over the last three years but “nobody in senior management has listened” to their worries over mental health. “They don’t listen or care. It’s all about targets. It’s sickening,” they added.

One official who worked for DWP for more than 40 years said they have quit as they were “totally worn out physically and mentally”.

“My health has suffered enormously, having to struggle with always being understaffed,” they said.

They said they felt they had no other option due to the “constant pressure, poor pay and staff leaving to go better jobs with better pay and less stress”.

Another long-serving official, a work coach who has been at DWP for over 20 years, said they “cannot remember stress levels ever being as bad as they are currently.”

“Staff are having to work far more hours than contracted in order to try and manage the workload. It’s a desperate situation but we are continually told that we are at the required staffing level. If something doesn’t change more staff will be lost and the situation will get even worse,” they added.

Vicious circle as staff quit or take sick leave

The high workloads and their impact on staff health are leading to officials either leaving or needing to take long-term sick leave, which in turn exacerabates the shortages.

One official said their team has lost five full-time work coaches and they and three other members of staff have been on long term sickness leave. Their only front of house member of staff has recently left to work in a warehouse which offered more money and flexibility than DWP, they said.

“Of the staff remaining here, three are actively looking and applying for new jobs with ambitions to leave DWP. The Jobcentre is an intolerable and miserable place of work”, they added.

Another official, working in a sanctions team, said: “Previously we would have tried to support staff in work to avoid them going off sick in the first place but now the choice is work or go off sick. This makes it tougher for people with care needs such as parents and cares and has a negative effect on people with disabilities and health conditions. Staff are now leaving or going off sick, bringing further stress to those left.”

An official working on child maintenance said some are quitting without another job to go to – “it is that bad”.

Another official, who works in work in frontline case maintenance, said more than 50% of staff are leaving within six months, with many not completing their training, or leaving shortly after their probation period as the job is “too hard for the pay”.

“Caseworkers are under so much stress from clients and management, that they are leaving by the droves, for other areas of work,” they added.

‘Left to stagnate for years’ – the impact on vulnerable people

Officials also described how the increased workloads are affecting the most vulnerable people whom the department aims to support.

Several officials explained customers with health problems are being cut adrift.

“For months, for thousands of people, we have parked almost every claim with a health condition which affects their ability to work,” one official said. “The public reason is so we can focus on those work-ready but in reality it’s because they don’t appear in the relevant figures. Some of our most vulnerable claimants are left with little or no support.”

“The complete focus is on mandatory appointments,” another said. “The most vulnerable claimants have been left to stagnate for over three years now.”

Another DWP employee, working in counter–fraud, compliance and debt, said there are more staff in the team than before Covid, but a lack of decision makers means claims are being blocked “only by a lack of decision”.

“This is unacceptable for us and more importantly, the claimant,” they said.

The official said the department is also “experiencing more threats of suicide by claimants, in some cases already attempted, sometimes successfully” amid long waits for decisions.

DWP a 'failing organisation' 

PCS DWP group president Martin Cavanagh said in an introduction to the document that the testimonials “demonstrate that DWP is a failing organisation in a state of crisis”.

He said the crisis is causing “an epidemic of mental ill health” in the workforce and the department is failing to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

Cavanagh said the department has made some minor adjustments to manage workloads, but they “do not go nearly far enough to address the shortfall of staff”.

As well as its 30,000 recruitment target, PCS says in the short-term it wants the DWP to urgently reconsider what if focuses on to prioritise issues impacting on vulnerable citizens.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the wellbeing of our staff, and provide access to a comprehensive range of assistance for their physical and mental health.

“We have recruitment plans in place to maintain key services – providing excellent opportunities for existing staff and new recruits who are playing a vital role in our next generation welfare reforms to help thousands back into jobs, grow the economy and drive down inflation.”

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