Seemingly unrelated reports published in May and June highlight growing pressures on the public sector workforce. The first, commissioned by UNISON, looks at the impact of funding reductions, job losses and pay restraint on the workforce in local government. The second, a research report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Westfield Health, considers the increasing numbers of employees in all sectors who are also carers, and the extent to which employers are making provision to help them cope with the stresses of combining working and caring responsibilities.

Steve Vale, HR Consultant, looks at the key issues raised in these reports.

Pressures on the local government workforce

Under Pressure, Underfunded and Undervalued: UNISON Members Keeping Communities Together is a report of research undertaken for UNISON by Incomes Data Research, published in May 2016. The research was undertaken among UNISON’s local government membership, and was designed to enable UNISON to track opinion on key issues such as:

  • working hours and pay levels

  • changes to pay and conditions

  • training and development

  • living costs and debts

  • workplace bullying and harassment.

It was based on the views of over 2200 UNISON members working in councils and schools. It followed on from similar studies in 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2008, allowing for changes over time to be tracked. The report notes that “Since the last survey — which preceded the financial crash of 2008 — local government funding has been cut by an average 40% and government public sector pay policies have hit hard at basic pay.”

The key findings are listed below.

  • Work pressure and stress

    • Three-quarters of respondents felt that workload and pressure have increased in the last 12 months.

    • Almost three-quarters of respondents reported rising stress levels — an increase from two-thirds in 2008.

    • Almost half of respondents (46%) felt that they have too much work to do and as a result similar proportions felt that stress at work has affected both their job performance (54%) and personal life (52%).

    • Staffing shortages are a major issue, with just below three-fifths of respondents reporting frequent staff shortages.

  • Morale and job security

    • Sixty-three per cent of respondents said that they believed that morale has worsened over the last year, compared with just 5% who reported an increase in morale in their working area or department.

    • Thirty-eight per cent reported job losses in their department over the last year and 43% felt less secure in their job than they did last year.

    • While 38% of respondents were worried about job security in the coming 12 months, almost double that proportion (62%) were concerned about job security in the longer term. (In 2008, the respective figures were lower, at 25% and 50%.)

    • Fifty-nine per cent of respondents had considered leaving their job in the last 12 months and 38% of these were actively looking for alternative employment.

    • Feeling undervalued, low pay and a lack of promotion prospects are the key reasons local government workers have considered leaving their current job, but many say that they have stayed in their jobs because they continue to enjoy the job and remain committed.

  • Pay

    • Median gross pay for full-time staff was £24,000 (compared to the national equivalent figure of £27,600 in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, ONS, 2015).

    • Over 50% of both part- and term-time only staff had gross annual earnings below £12,000.

    • The full-time gross median salary of men at £26,304 was 13% higher than the corresponding figure for women, standing at £23,268.

    • Full-time chief officers/senior managers had median gross annual pay of £50,889.

    • At the other end of the spectrum, teaching/classroom assistants had full-time median annual pay of £15,534.

    • In between these extremes were eight broad occupational groups with median full-time pay of between £20,000 and £30,000 per year. These included finance professionals, IT staff and children’s care workers. Local authority professionals and engineers, architects, and surveyors had median salaries around £31,000 a year.

    • Overall, just 29% of respondents thought that they were fairly paid for the work they do, with term-time only staff least satisfied with their pay level.

  • Living costs and debts

    • Some 70% of respondents reported that living costs have increased over the last 12 months, while just 26% reported an increase in their personal income.

    • Some 60% of respondents were finding both food costs and general living costs, including buying clothing and footwear, more difficult than 12 months ago.

    • Forty-two per cent of respondents had personal debt, with 24% owing £10,000 or more.

  • Changes to pay and conditions

    • Almost half (46%) of respondents reported changes in their pay and conditions since 2010, 85% of whom reported that pay and conditions have worsened.

    • Around three-quarters of respondents reported that allowances for working outside of regular hours, performance-related payments, car allowances, overtime pay, sick pay, unsocial hours payments and unpaid holiday provision had all deteriorated.

    • In the majority of cases, it was reported that these changes had been imposed rather than agreed.

  • Reviews and reorganisations

    • Sixty-three per cent of respondents had experienced a review or reorganisation since 2010, mostly driven by cost-cutting exercises.

    • Work reviews and reorganisations were reported to have negative consequences, with the main outcomes being reduced staffing levels, fewer resources and worse ways of working.

    • Employees believed that protecting pay and conditions is the most important way to help staff to provide better services, followed by job security guarantees and better funding for the sector.

    • The vast majority of survey respondents said that they supported the implementation of changes in the workplace if this would lead to improved service provision for the public.

  • Working extra hours

    • Just below 60% of the sample reported working extra hours beyond their contracted hours. On average, full-time staff said they worked an extra 3.1 hours a week, part-timers 2 hours and term-time only workers 2.8 hours.

    • Overall, 23% of respondents said that they worked extra hours that were unrewarded or uncompensated.

    • Two-thirds (65%) of all staff worked overtime at short notice, but there were significant variations by occupational category — senior managers and homecare workers were the professions most likely to be called upon to work extra hours at short notice.

  • Bullying and harassment

    • Incidences of abuse at work have increased since 2008 with 60% of respondents reporting that they had been subjected to at least one form of abuse, either bullying/harassment, or verbal or physical threats, as well as actual violence.

    • Verbal abuse from service users was the most common form of abuse.

    • Occupations most at risk of threatening behaviour were children’s care workers, adult care workers, library staff, professional staff and school support staff.

    • Survey respondents considered that employers were generally effective in ensuring general health and safety, preventing violence at work, making adjustments for disabilities, preventing racial harassment and helping staff to return to work after long periods of sickness absence.

    • However, as in 2008, the employer’s policies to prevent stress were deemed to be less effective, as, to a lesser extent, was their approach to supporting victims of violence.

  • Training and development

    • The survey showed some positive findings on training and development, with almost three-quarters of respondents having undertaken some form of training in the last year.

    • The most common form of training to have been undertaken is health and safety, closely followed by job-specific training.

    • Eighty-nine per cent of respondents found the training useful in their current job, but only 72% thought the training helped future career development.

    • Sixty-eight per cent of respondents either had an agreed training and development plan, or had discussed and agreed training needs with their line manager.

  • Contracts and working arrangements

    • While the vast majority of respondents were employed on permanent contracts (98%), analysis by age showed that 71% of those aged 16 to 24 are less likely to be employed on permanent contracts.

    • The majority of respondents (97.9%) worked defined contracted hours.

    • A significant minority reported having more than one job — 8% provided details of a second job and 1% a third job. Multiple jobs were more common among school support staff and teaching assistants.

    • Occupational groups with a large proportion of women showed a higher prevalence of part-time working than groups with a larger proportion of men.

    • Women are more than twice as likely to work term-time only, while men are twice as likely to work full time as women.

    • Just over a third of respondents (37%) worked a standard “9–5” work pattern and many work “unsocial” hours.

In its executive summary, the report sets the above findings in context, pointing out the following.

  • Since 2010, local government has faced unprecedented cuts to funding by Westminster, with an inevitable impact on jobs, pay and, terms and conditions. Pay in local government is now worth 20% less in real terms, once inflation is taken into account, than it was in 2010. There has been little or no investment in the workforce.

  • Those working in local government are on the frontline of delivering public services, face-to-face and often under difficult circumstances. They keep people safe, housed, educated and cared for. Some are highly visible, but others who undertake important work are less so — eg trading standards teams, environmental health workers, building control professionals and youth services staff.

  • With an estimated half a million jobs lost in local government since 2010, it is no surprise that those left behind face escalating workloads and pressure. Frontline workers are finding themselves under mounting pressure as their colleagues behind the scenes, in administrative and support services, lose their jobs. Without support to frontline colleagues and service users, the quality of public services is bound to suffer.

  • Pay levels for the workforce in local government are worse than in any other part of the public sector with nearly 30% paid below the level of the National Living Wage campaign’s calculation of the living wage.

  • The impact of councils’ financial position on terms and conditions other than pay has been particularly severe, impacting on 75% of the workforce.

  • At the same time as resources are at an all-time low, those working in councils and schools are reporting an increase in expectations from both service users and their employers. Seventy-six per cent reported an increase in expectations from their employer in the last year, a sharp increase from 69% in 2008.

  • While the picture on training looks relatively good, it was nonetheless the case that the survey showed that the proportion of employees receiving no training in the past 12 months had increased to over a quarter, and that almost a third of respondents said they had no personal training or development plan.

  • There has also been a marked increase in the percentage of local government workers reporting that they have been subjected to abuse at work, whether bullying or harassment, verbal or physical threats, or actual violence. Reports of these incidents have risen from 44% in 2008 to 60% in the current survey.

  • Reorganisations (usually cost-driven), are becoming more prevalent, with 63% of employees reporting that they had experienced a reorganisation or review in the last 12 months. By coincidence (or perhaps not), the same proportion of employees reported that their morale had worsened in the last year.

The report highlights the finding that the vast majority of workers demonstrate a willingness to support the implementation of changes in the workplace if they are intended to improve the service to the public. This, it says, shows that the local government workforce has consistently demonstrated a willingness to adapt to workplace change since 2001.

It concludes that the workforce should be at the forefront of the debate about cuts to jobs and services. Local government workers have a unique insight from being both service providers and users. Local government workers in councils and schools are playing a crucial role in sustaining local communities through austerity. UNISON says that they deserve a better deal, not attacks on their jobs, and pay and conditions, and that it will be calling on key decision-makers in local and central government to address the issues raised by the research report.

Carers in the workplace

The UNISON survey found that a large proportion of local government employees reported that stress at work had affected both their job performance (54%) and personal life (52%). Against this background, a report highlighting the fact that a larger numbers of employees are likely to find their personal lives affected by having to combine caring responsibilities and work is perhaps timely.

Creating an Enabling Future for Carers in the Workplace is a report of research undertaken by the CIPD and Westfield Health with the help of YouGov. The background to the report is as follows.

  • The number of carers in the UK is set to grow from 6 million to 9 million in the next 30 years.

  • There are currently over 3 million working carers in the UK and changing demographics and an ageing population mean that three in five people will end up caring for someone at some point in their lives.

  • Life can be very challenging for working carers in the UK, with one in six giving up work or reducing their hours to care and one in five having seen their work negatively impacted as a result of a caring responsibility.

The research therefore sought to explore the following.

  • What it feels like to be a working carer and contrast this with current employer practices.

  • How organisations can better support/empower working carers and avoid the often unnecessary waste of talent when they feel unable to continue to juggle their caring and work responsibilities.

To produce the report, the CIPD, working with YouGov, conducted qualitative and quantitative research into the issue of working carers in April and May 2016. Four in-depth online focus groups were run in April 2016 with a cross-section of 23 working carers who varied in workplace seniority, industry and sector, age, gender, geographical location and short- and long-term caring responsibilities. A survey of 554 senior HR professionals, weighted to be representative of the UK business population, was conducted in May 2016.

The main findings were the following.

  • Only 20% of employers measure how many of their employees have caring responsibilities.

  • A third of organisations covered by the survey offered paid leave to help employees cope with their caring responsibilities, and 59% offer unpaid leave — typical amounts of leave ranged from 1 to 10 days.

  • Other forms of support included:

    • flexible leave arrangements

    • flexible working

    • use of telephone and time for private calls

    • counselling.

  • Just 13% of organisations trained managers to help support employees who are carers.

  • The top five reasons why organisations support carers at work are: it is the right thing to do as a good employer (65%), it improves work-life balance (60%), it improves morale/engagement (58%), it improves retention (53%) and it reduces absenteeism (50%).

  • Almost half (45%) of employers think the steps their organisation has taken to support carers have made a positive difference to their organisation’s culture (this rises to 66% who have a policy aimed at the needs of carers).

More detailed findings for the public sector showed the following.

  • Around half of employers had formal written policies aimed at the needs of working carers.

  • Public sector employers were significantly more likely to offer paid leave and other support to help employees with caring responsibilities.

  • Public sector employers were significantly more likely to train managers to support employees who are carers.

The report also sets out the outcomes from the qualitative research undertaken. These were the following.

  • Maintaining a work-family balance is a struggle; care/work responsibilities leave little time to enjoy life.

  • Caring may be associated with providing physical and emotional care; however, while many employees view themselves as carers (as in, a person who provides care), others see themselves simply as “helping” others, or “doing their duty”.

  • Experiences of caring vary depending on a range of factors: age, health status and relationship with the cared for all play a role; caring for an adult child with complex needs v an elderly relative requires different skill sets.

  • Caring can impact on wellbeing: tiredness/exhaustion, lack of time, lack of recognition, and the struggles of balancing work/other responsibilities are considered the greatest challenges.

  • Informal coping strategies and support networks are currently used by many; taking some “time out for themselves” or sharing responsibilities with others can help employees to alleviate stress.

  • Employers are generally open to discussing caring responsibilities with their employees; offering flexibility around working hours and broader support, is particularly valued.

  • Employees appreciate organisations that give the carer permission to respond as they need, rather than ones that actively intervene in employees’ situations; support, at a distance, is demanded (62% of employees said this).

  • Many felt that caring has impacted on their working life; reduced hours, in particular, is felt to restrict earning power and opportunities for career progression.

  • While there is some awareness of the Carer’s Allowance among this sample, very few were claiming (largely because of eligibility issues); most felt that it is financially very limited, given the demands of caring duties.

  • Greater financial support would be welcomed in the future; a living wage for the most in need, plus out-of-pocket expenses and access to an “emergency” fund were all suggested.

The report also includes a number of case studies.

The report concludes with some key calls to action on the issue of working carers for employers and the HR profession, as well as recommendations for change within Government and the wider public policy landscape.

  • Given that employers and working carers are most appreciative of an organisational approach that gives employees with caring responsibilities permission to respond as they need rather than a hand-holding response, organisations should try to create and nurture a culture that is inclusive and empowering of working carers, for example.

  • Foster an open and inclusive culture where employees feel supported and empowered to respond to situations as they need as far as possible.

    • Ensure that line managers have the confidence to have sensitive conversations with employees and empower them to tailor their working arrangements to suit their individual caring needs wherever possible.

    • Encourage line managers to hold development and career conversations with working carers to ensure their careers are not negatively impacted.

    • Ensure that senior leaders will lead on this agenda and visibly champion the needs of working carers.

    • Consult carers and consider developing a carers’ network in the organisation to provide peer support.

  • Employers should create and promote a carers’ policy, formal or informal, covering the organisational support available to carers, to help legitimise the situation of working carers and send a clear message to staff that the organisation will support them.

  • Employers should develop and implement the right tools and support for working carers, including the following.

    • Active promotion of a flexible working policy that is responsive to the needs of people with caring responsibilities that can be unexpected and typically does not fall into a predictable and regular pattern.

    • Attractive working situations that take into account people’s caring responsibilities and enable them to stay in work.

    • Introducing a paid and/or unpaid leave policy enabling employees to take up to a number of days off per year for their caring responsibilities.

    • Developing guidance and/or a section of the intranet where working carers can be signposted to external sources of support.

    • Considering providing counselling and other wellbeing support to carers if needed.

    • Training line managers so that they understand the demands that working carers experience and are aware of the support available to them.

  • Government, as an enabler, should encourage wider debate about the importance of supporting working carers and more actively promote the business case among employers so that they act now to avoid losing valuable working carers and older workers who will increasingly have eldercare responsibilities.

  • Principles and values that will foster the right behaviours and responses should be promoted to guide activity. This will enable employers to be agile in responding to changing needs and circumstances in ways that are helpful, appropriate and practical and in tune with carers’ and business needs.

  • There needs to be more concerted action by Government, in collaboration with business and employee bodies, to encourage more active promotion of flexible working by employers to their workforce.

  • Government should develop a stronger evidence base and act as a repository of good practice case studies showcasing how employers can accommodate working carers — sometimes small changes can make a big difference to people. They should also support the provision of easily accessible information and guidance to help employees help those in need of care.

  • Government should also take heed of the impact on the financial independence of people who are informal carers. There are short- and long-term implications for their financial wellbeing. They are likely to have to face a reduction in immediate income (if they need to reduce their hours or give up work altogether) and their longer-term capacity to build up pension provisions and savings for older age. At a national level, against the backdrop of the ageing population, poverty in old age is more rather than less likely to result, putting increased pressures on public provisions and services.

Conclusions

Many local authority employers will recognise (and sympathise) with the pressures on the workforce set out in the UNISON report. While some of the issues (eg bullying and harassment) should be tackled immediately if measures are not already in place, the ability of local authority employers to overcome or alleviate some of the other problems is severely constrained by their current funding and financial circumstances. This means that in areas such as pay, terms and conditions and the need for re-organisations to reduce costs, they may have little option but to carry on as at present, however sympathetic they are. The same will be the case in many other parts of the public sector.

However, there were also some more positive messages in the UNISON report which employers could seek to build upon, including support for the implementation of changes in the workplace if this would lead to improved service provision for the public. This underlines the importance of having clear, regular and effective employee communication arrangements in place, particularly when difficult decisions need to be implemented, so that there is, at the very least, an understanding of the rationale underlying them.

At the same time, employers will also need to recognise that there are other factors which could, if not handled properly, increase and compound the stresses employees are facing, and there is not always a large cost implication to addressing these. Measures to tackle the increasing incidence of employees having to combine work and caring responsibilities would appear to be one of these factors.

Thus, to avoid even greater risks to the sometimes fragile morale of their workforce, some of the measures suggested for employers in the CIPD/Westfield Health report should be carefully considered and, where possible and sensible, implemented. It is, of course, to the credit of the public sector that the report suggests that a number of public sector employers (a greater proportion than in the other sectors) are already doing so.

References

Under Pressure, Underfunded and Undervalued: UNISON Members Keeping Communities Together, a comparative research report for UNISON Incomes Data Research, May 2016, is available at www.unison.org.uk.

Creating an Enabling Future for Carers in the Workplace, Research Report, CIPD in partnership with Westfield Health, June 2016, is available at www.cipd.co.uk.

Last reviewed 15 July 2016