Working to live, or living to work?
Ever-increasing working hours in the SCS mean more stress, tiredness and ill-health, and a growing shortage of people willing to take on SCS jobs. But it’s within our gift to do something about it, says Eugene Mitchell.
Another year, another Senior Salaries Review Body report on SCS pay and another statement from the Prime Minister. And another year with no significant movement on SCS pay. Details of how our FDA recommendations were dealt with are covered in the FDA’s April SCS newsletter. We called for a one off realignment increase to pay, as was implemented for MPs. However, the SSRB rejected this, arguing there was insufficient evidence of recruitment and retention difficulties to warrant it. That’s quite a contrast to the position for MPs’ salaries where recruitment and retention difficulties just do not apply.
The SSRB’s point about insufficient evidence of recruitment difficulties doesn’t ring true in my experience. One of the things we’re expected to do in the SCS is to nurture and coach talent, to bring on new blood to perform even better than the current cadre.
In my neck of the woods, there are two competitions underway for SCS posts at the time of writing and I’ve been encouraging certain colleagues to apply for these on promotion. I don’t approach these people at random. I’ve ensured that they have had the opportunities to develop the necessary competences and I’m confident that they would do really well in these SCS posts. They’re equally confident. But they’re also adamant that neither these, nor any other SCS posts, are for them. In essence this is due to the rewards not being remotely commensurate with the additional expectations, responsibilities and hassles. And this is a point that, given the last eight years’ experience on pay, I cannot in honesty rebut.
In fact, it’s an issue that applies across the FDA grades – as borne out by the responses to the most recent FDA working hours survey, and by experience on a recent external Grade 7 recruitment exercise where two candidates were successful and both declined their offers, one because of the terms and conditions, particularly the initial annual leave entitlement, on offer.The responses to the working hours survey are some of the saddest, most depressing things I’ve read in a very long time. The effects of long hours working include tiredness, stress, irritability, poor diet, poor sleeping and an adverse impact on domestic life. I can certainly hold my hands up to all of those.
The comments in response to the working hours survey are some of the saddest, most depressing things I’ve read in a very long time. There are some common themes coming from the 683 people who provided white box comments on the adverse effects of long hours working and there will be an article on this in the FDA magazine in due course. Key among the consequences for individuals are tiredness, stress, irritability, poor diet, poor sleeping and an adverse impact on domestic life. I can certainly hold my hands up to all of those.
As one respondent commented, “If everything comes down to earning money but there is no time to enjoy it, why are we bothering?” It seems clear that more and more of us are living to work rather than working to live, and that there is no equilibrium in the work/life balance.
However it’s also clear, to me at least, that if there is a will then something can be done about long hours. We could start by ensuring we each know exactly what hours we work. As another respondent noted “Once it becomes a habit, keeping a timesheet is empowering” – music to the ears of this accountant!
Another comment really struck a chord with me: “Long hours become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an issue becomes more critical then more people want to know about progress (generates more work) and even simple tasks become more contentious and senior colleagues demand more advice. There is little organisational discipline which allows those working on critical and difficult tasks to concentrate on getting the job done instead of reporting on progress [my emphasis].” Do we put more effort into how information is presented in order to make it palatable than we do into the substance of the underlying issue? Is this really speaking truth unto power?
In addition to ensuring we are all properly focusing on priorities and not fixating solely on presentation, there are individual coping mechanisms which a number of people reported about. Again, some of these struck a chord with me.
The first seems quite straightforward but clearly a lot of us struggle to do it – switch off your mobile/Blackberry when you’re not working. In some areas of the Civil Service turning off your mobile is apparently frowned upon and technology has resulted in staff being increasingly expected to be contactable outside work hours. If this is the dividend we’re getting from our investment in IT then a) it’s not worth it, and b) it’s not working. We’re supposed to use these to work smarter, not longer. I certainly switch my Blackberry off at weekends (although I will switch it back on on Sunday evening to remind me of what I’m doing and where I’m going the following day). I would certainly never dream of taking it on holiday – and if I did our Data Guardians would rightly be concerned.
Working compressed hours is an effective coping mechanism according to respondents. It works for me. I still work significantly more than my contracted hours but I book my tenth day off in my nine-day fortnights well in advance and ensure I always take it; although it’s a moveable feast to suit business needs, that gives me no problem whatsoever.
Another coping mechanism that respondents reported, and which, again, works well for me, is to plan leave well in advance, book it in my calendar, and take it. As one respondent said, “rather than trying to fit leave around work, make work fit around leave”. I joined the department in 1998 and since then have never worked in the period between Christmas and New Year. When I return to work after that period, one of the first things I do is plan and book most of my leave for the new calendar year. Of course on occasion I have subsequently changed the dates – but that’s because my holiday plans had changed.
There are other, more extreme, ideas that respondents suggested, including retiring or resigning. Others noted that if we each simply worked our conditioned hours there would be a huge resource shortage, departments wouldn’t be able to function, and there would have to be a response from the employer. The reality for very many of us is that the public service ethos is so strong that we would find it difficult to cut back to such an extent. And in those circumstances it’s not surprising that the employer isn’t rushing to do much about working smarter rather than longer – although I’ve no doubt that new technology could be a great enabler of this.
However we are all senior people, and we have it in our gift to do something about this individually. I’ve set out a few suggestions of what we each could do. Why not try them? And let me know of other techniques that work for you – and could work for all colleagues.