Public sector overload

The house has suddenly got busier. The GCSEs are over and my partner is on stress leave…

Office worker looking stressed at their desk


The GCSEs are finally over. I feel absolutely exhausted by the whole process. I’m thinking daughter two might also need time to recover, although I think she mentally checked out at some point during half term.

Her last official GCSE was Physics on Friday. She came home with her shirt in shreds. She had ripped it apart as a celebration of the end of school uniform days. Unfortunately, she had forgotten that she had another exam – citizenship [not a GCSE] – on Monday. I got the shirt cheap on e-Bay. It is around 10 sizes too big and looks like a small teepee. We patched it together and she is now officially in semi-retirement, living the high life on the sofa and ripping up all her notes on subjects she will never look at again…unless she has to resit.

Daughter two is now off school more or less for the rest of the summer, waiting for the next chapter of her life to begin. My partner is also off work on stress leave. He works in the public sector and his workload has, like that of many, increased to intolerable levels in the last years with, of course, no salary rise or recognition of increased responsibilities to go with it. He has to consider what he does next, but it’s hard to think about the future with the whole Brexit thing overhanging everything and EU citizenship rights still being used as a bargaining chip.

Overwork in stretched public services like the NHS, social services and teaching is a massive issue. It’s all very well to talk about greater flexible working in the public sector and moves in that direction are, of course, welcome. The problem is that, due to austerity cuts, skills shortages, over-accountability regimes, Brexit and the like, those staff who are left are overstretched and having to make what can be vital decisions in less and less time.

Allowing them to work flexibly does not reduce their workload, although it may give them slightly more freedom over when and where they work.

My partner works four and a half days a week. He is fairly mobile as his job involves multiple visits. His base is a local hub with hotdesking, although most people opt to work in the same space. He could work more from home. He could opt to work fewer hours and do another job on the side to make up the money.

But essentially working more flexibly will not reduce his caseload and if he reduces his hours it will leave his colleagues more stretched. In any event, even if his work reduced pro rata it would still be impossible to do within his working hours.

So what are his options? To return to a similar stressful situation, to look for another job, leaving his colleagues with larger caseloads, or to sign up with an agency and do the same job for more money but less security?

For his employer it’s a catch 22 situation. The work overload, in large part a result of budget cuts, is driving people away so employers are having to pay more to rehire the same people as agency workers because the work they have to do cannot be reduced [in fact austerity is making it worse in many cases].

Indeed to reduce the workload, to cut corners, could result in life-threatening situations which would, if the focus is merely on the bottom line, cost more to address.

So there you have it. We know that austerity makes no sense morally, but nor does it even make financial sense.Yet here we are, teetering on the edge of a potential no-deal recession, more cuts to the public sector and no doubt greater privatisation, leading to worse working conditions and even greater retention problems. What is the answer? Robots?  I’m sure automation can address some areas of the work, but surely this is the sector where human contact is most important.

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