'Lead by example' on good work agenda, government told

Survey "should ring alarm bells in Westminster, Whitehall and the offices of all public service employers", Unison's general secretary said.

Unison surveyed 1,000 support staff in healthcare, local government and other public sector roles. Photo: PA.

One of the UK’s biggest public sector unions has called on the government to “lead by example” on its good work agenda, after a survey of more than 1,000 public sector support staff found morale was low and unpaid overtime high.

The government should work with unions and employers to address low moral and staffing shortages in health, local government and other public services revealed in the survey, Unison said.

More than two in five of the staff surveyed for its report, published today, said they worked unpaid overtime most weeks are more than four in five said morale was low where they worked. Three in ten said they were actively looking to leave their jobs.


Staff in the survey described feeling demoralised because staff cuts were leading to higher workloads. Around three-quarters of those working in health or local government – 75% and 72% respectively – believed the standard of services they run was declining because of workload pressures.

“[The survey’s] findings should ring alarm bells in Westminster, Whitehall, devolved administrations and the offices of all public service employers, in the NHS, local government, education and policing,” the report said.

The survey comes after years of budget cuts to public services and stagnating wages amid the government's austerity agenda. The government lifted its 1% pay cap for many public sector workers in July, but wage growth across the public sector has remained low. 

In July, three unions announced they were launching a judicial review over the government's lack of consultation with civil servants on a pay deal, and last week the government rejected a recommendation to increase senior civil servants' wages by 2.5%.

Unison argued its findings undermine the government’s commitment to its good work agenda, one of the pillars of its industrial strategy. A paper published in February by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy set out a series of principles underpinning its objective to ensure “good work for all”, including fair pay, satisfaction and wellbeing, safety and security.

“However, if the government wants to be taken seriously by employers and employees across the economy, it also needs to practice what it preaches. As this survey demonstrates, at the current time it clearly does not,” the report said.

The union called on the government to work with unions and employers to tackle the problems highlighted in the survey and examine “how creating good working conditions in the public services can create benchmarks on everything from pay and pensions through to training and progression” that could then be reflected in the private sector.

Government should also take “urgent measures” to fill vacant or frozen posts in the public sector to relieve pressures on existing staff and guarantee future pay increases, it said. “Whilst it is recognised that this recommendation has budgetary implications, it should also be recognised by government that the status quo is a false economy in terms of public service productivity,” the report said.

The report also pointed to an analysis by the Smith Institute think-tank of employment statistics that suggested support staff including teaching assistants, hospital porters and police community support officers, were working a combined total of 40 million hours of unpaid overtime. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey overtime figures added up to the equivalent of 25,000 extra public service staff, it said.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said a response to the impact of staffing pressures from all levels of government was “long overdue”. "A failure to act will undermine standards further and weaken public confidence further still," he added.

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