Services were already creaking pre-coronavirus, and vulnerable children will be even more at risk when the lockdown is lifted
Freedom of movement for EU workers has been front and centre in the Brexit debate. Fear of foreign workers undercutting the wages and working conditions of locals helped to fuel the leave campaign. Now EU nationals – Poles and others – who have called Britain home for years, sometimes decades, face an uncertain future in the UK.
But while attitudes to migrant workers in Brexit Britain are often seen as a case apart, free movement of people evokes hostility in other EU countries too. The belief that foreigners take away jobs from local workers is – and has long been – a textbook example of false information. Research has proved again and again that the belief is ill-founded. Yet to some, it feels true no matter how many studies show that it is not.
It’s leaflets at the moment. If my son sees any, in a cafe for instance, he wants them all. Later he will want to go through them and then destroy each one, tearing them into tiny pieces. We’ve got him down to a maximum of three. This is progress. When he lived at home, it was books – each one to be looked through swiftly, then reshelved on the other side of the room. If we went outside, every item on display in the two village shops had to be named three times. I stopped going outside. I stopped trying to speak to anyone on the phone, because my son knew that if he stood next to me and shrieked like an agonised seagull no one could hear a thing.
I have spent a large part of my life as a carer for my son, whom I shall call Huw (he is now a vulnerable adult) who has severe autism and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I was helped for part of that time by my daughter, Rhiannon. There are around 7 million carers in the UK – that’s one in 10 people – and that doesn’t include parents whose children aren’t sick or disabled. So many carers’ stories go untold. Why? Probably because it’s exhausting, especially if lack of sleep is part of the picture (typical in cases of autism). It may be because unaffected people feel uncomfortable thinking about it, but it’s possible that they just don’t think about it, full stop – because our stories aren’t out there. And yet it’s possible we will all be carers at some point.
Many people will find, at some stage in their life, that they will need to assume responsibility for someone who cannot care for themselves. Caring is a vital part of our society, and for most people it cannot be outsourced to an expensive nursing home or private staff.
Yet caring remains undervalued. A catchphrase from the Thatcher era, seeking to justify the destruction of many social support systems, was that “spoon-feeding only teaches the shape of the spoon”. This ignores the fact that people from babyhood to frail old age often do actually need to be spoon-fed. By insisting that society did not exist, the Tories set in motion a pretence that such needs do not exist, and the people who cater for them were not worthy of recognition, beyond some vague adulation of “family values”.
Caring can either break you or make you a stronger, wiser person. Many people, most of them women, can be broken by the burdens they have had to take on, now that society has largely turned its back on their needs as support systems for sick and disabled people and their families have been further dismantled.
In recent weeks media outlets in the US have been fretting over what would ordinarily be considered good news – the roaring American economy, which has brought low unemployment and, in some places, a labour shortage. Owners and managers have complained about their problems in finding people to fill low-wage positions. “Nobody wants to do manual labour any more,” as one trade association grandee told the Baltimore Sun, and so the manual labour simply goes undone.
Company bosses talk about the things they have done to fix the situation: the ads they’ve published; the guest-worker visas for which they’ve applied; how they are going into schools to encourage kids to learn construction skills or to drive trucks. The Wall Street Journal reports on the amazing perks that plumbing companies are now offering new hires: quiet rooms, jetski trips, pottery classes, free breakfast, free beer.
But nothing seems to work. Blame for the labour shortage is sprayed all over the US map: opioids are said to be the problem. And welfare, and inadequate parking spaces, and a falling birthrate, and mass incarceration, and – above all – the Trump administration’s immigration policies. But no one really knows for sure.
A friend recently told me about how he had been angry and offensive to a colleague who suffers from ADHD and depression and struggles to maintain concentration: “If nobody puts him back in his place, he will never improve,” he said. I was shocked, and reminded of how difficult managing a disability can be.
The thing is, I’m disabled too. But in a perverse sense I’m lucky, as I can hide my disability. I often wonder if I would struggle to manage my behaviour, too, if I received the same treatment as my colleague with a more visible disability.
Trade unions EU referendum European Union Work & careers
Healthcare staff in Guardian survey say increasing workloads, unreasonable expectations, cuts and long hours are damaging their lives
“Reduced budgets, reduced staff members, higher caseloads and more red tape … You are always struggling just to keep up.” That is one heartfelt comment from a survey by the Guardian that reveals the huge toll government cuts are taking on staff in public services and the voluntary sector.
The Clockoff survey, conducted last month, asked about the wellbeing of employees across the voluntary sector and public services. More than 3,700 people, in jobs ranging from social work to police and probation, from social housing to the NHS, charities and NGOs, took part online via the Guardian’s professional networks.
A clear picture emerges of staff working long hours, with few breaks, and a workforce that has become wearily resigned to this way of working. When asked, do you think stress is a fact of life for employees in the public or voluntary sector, 85% of respondents say they agree. For respondents working in probation services the figure rises to 100%.
Some 93% of respondents say they are stressed at work either all, some, or a lot of the time. Of the 9% who say they are stressed all of the time at work, almost all report working beyond their contracted hours. On average, respondents put in an extra seven hours a week. Close on one in five say they don’t take any break during their working day, with less than a quarter (24%) enjoying a main break of at least 30 minutes.
It is clear that cuts are having a sustained impact on workloads. Social workers, for instance, report having more work to do, but not only are there fewer staff to deal with cases, cuts to voluntary bodies also mean there are fewer external support services for children and families. “The phrase ‘doing more with less’ is not only an offence against physics, it is the frontline workers who bear this ever-increasing load,” says one social worker. “When the captain says faster the oarsmen are the ones whose labour is increased.” She adds: “I suffer with insomnia caused by my employer and I am being treated for anxiety and depression.”
NHS staff are the most likely of all public sector workers to feel stressed because of their job, according to the survey results. More than 60% say they feel stressed all or most of the time, and 59% say they feel more stressed this year than last year.
The survey also reveals that NHS workers are the least likely to take a break during a working day. Just over a quarter (26%) don’t take a break at all, and only around one in 10 takes more than half an hour. And the large majority of NHS workers (96%) work beyond their contracted hours, doing an average of five extra hours per week.
It is not just those in clinical roles who are feeling the pressure. A ward clerk supervisor, who has had to take time off work because stress levels had exacerbated an existing mental health condition, says: “So-called efficiency savings have resulted in remaining staff being overloaded – particularly those who aren’t frontline like administrators and secretaries.” One senior manager admits: “I feel I can’t help my team or myself more to cope and adapt to change and pressure.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, says: “Frontline work in the NHS is rewarding but it can be emotionally and physically challenging, so it’s vital those staff have the right support. The culture in the NHS has improved demonstrably and there is more specialist support. But we cannot be complacent as progress is uneven and the NHS must keep innovating to meet ever-growing demand on its services.”
While NHS staff are the most stressed, other sectors are not far behind: 58% of local government staff, including social workers, 51% of central government employees and 46% of charity workers report being stressed all or most of the time.
Jo Cleary, chair of the College of Social Work, says continuing funding reductions are taking an unbearable toll on social workers. “Our members report juggling highly complex workloads, with little time to reflect and plan their work. Putting this kind of pressure on social workers, while expecting them to do complex, delicate work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is dangerous. We also risk deterring people from staying in social work, or even entering the profession in the first place. We are very clear on this: social work needs greater investment from government as an immediate priority.”
On a more positive note, two-thirds of respondents believe the work they do in the public or voluntary sector is always or often worthwhile, and 40% think their contribution is always or often valued. Many staff working for campaigning NGOs, for example, who despite working an average of nine extra hours a week are among the least stressed in our survey, say that they actively choose to work long hours because it gives them a sense of purpose. But respondents warn that this sense of duty can be taken advantage of and many report being asked to do more and more work.
Sally Cupitt, head of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ charities evaluation services says: “We must do our best to make sure staff feel supported and valued in their work. A small amount of stress can be a good thing, but sustained or excessive stress can be damaging to health and wellbeing. Charities should adopt employee wellbeing policies wherever possible, such as employee assistance programmes and flexible working options.”
The survey shows that stress at work is taking its toll on people’s health and wellbeing. Poor sleep, headaches, stress-related mental health issues and even digestive problems are among a range of physical and psychological symptoms reported by respondents, 39% of whom have sought medical advice or counselling.
Asked how people try to reduce their stress levels outside of work, most say they relax by spending more time either alone or with friends and family; around45% exercise, catch up on sleep, or watch TV. Worryingly, 28% report drinking more.
Commenting on the survey findings, a Local Government Association spokesman says: “Councils are taking steps to adopt flexible working practices where possible because they know they help build a more engaged workforce, attract the best talent and increase productivity.”
The Cabinet Office says its own People Survey of more than 274,000 civil servants paints a very different picture. “Staff engagement continues to rise and 81% of respondents said their manager is considerate of their life outside work”, says a spokesman.Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, which represents many public sector workers, says spending cuts, attacks on pay and pensions and mass redundancies have had a huge effect on a demoralised public sector workforce. : “This survey lays bare the damage cuts have had on frontline services, with staff regularly overworked, stressed and unable to do their jobs as they would like.” Public servants have understandably had enough and many are rightly fearful of the new round of austerity the government is about to unleash in its July budget.” She warns that if the government continues to treat public servants as second-class citizens, it will struggle to hold on to and recruit the skilled, dedicated staff needed to deliver public services. “When that happens, we all pay the price.”
In their own words
“Excessive stress in child protection social work is commonplace. Over the past six years it has affected my physical and mental health at times, placed a strain on personal relationships, led me to question my choice of profession, and frequently leaves me tired, exhausted, emotionally drained and overwhelmed. I’m stressed a lot of the time and the stress has increased over the past year. I was seconded to a new post which lacked clarity and effective management oversight. I was given additional responsibilities without a reduction in my previous, already overwhelming day-to-day responsibilities. Senior management was poor and chaotic. I had to spend months fighting to be paid appropriately for my level of responsibility.
“The public sector is being destroyed by ever-increasing cuts to funding. Alongside this there is an ever-increasing demand for services from my department specifically (children and families), yet there is no money provided for more staff. We are also affected by funding cuts to services we rely on to assist in supporting the families we work with. What would help? Investment in social work, local authority social work receiving the appropriate funding to ensure there are adequate staffing levels, which are proportionate to the demand for service.” Social worker
“I’ve lost weight as I miss at least three meals a week. I suffer from constipation, piles, insomnia [and am] constantly exhausted. I constantly feel I haven’t done my best but it’s impossible to do it all.” Midwife
“The number of people working here has been slashed but the workload has not. There is a lack of trust of the workforce and flexibility from the management. It feels like they are expecting more and more but giving less and less. The government has contributed to the perception of the public sector workforce as being lazy and money-grabbing. There have been many changes in the organisation and no one has any certainty or job security despite permanent contracts.” Local government development officer
“I got very stressed around Christmas and new year, when I was working completely on my own with 14 young people to support, no one to offload on to and as a result my own mental health was suffering. I was signed off work for two weeks in January after constantly bursting into tears, not sleeping and just not feeling like my usual happy self.” Social housing professional
“A lot more strain has been put on the voluntary sector due to cuts in other areas. We have seen an increase in the amount of vulnerable people we see weekly. Because there are gaps in services, we are expected to fulfil a need, in fact lots of different needs. As cuts increase, these gaps will increase and I fear that we cannot adequately meet the needs of some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our society, which is hard to take.” Charity project worker
“The public sector is the victim of large-scale cuts and austerity. While the cash impact of this might be significant, the combined low feeling of motivation and self-worth is stressful, as is making up for missing or stretched colleagues and the government continues to demand more.” Central government regional director ………’