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Tuesday 12 November 2019

Tackling stress in the CPS: The FDA talks to Helen Wheatley

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This Stress Awareness Week, we look at how FDA health and safety rep Helen Wheatley managed to help change CPS stress policy to better protect her colleagues' wellbeing.

“I started to see a trend. Across the country, the single highest reason for senior crown prosecutors being off was stress and mental health issues.”

Helen Wheatley is a lawyer, and part of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). She works to uphold the rule of law, and ensure people are prosecuted for their crimes. Accordingly, she has first-hand knowledge of how strenuous this work can be.

“I started to see a trend. Across the country, the single highest reason for senior crown prosecutors being off was stress and mental health issues”.

Wheatley has a second role, too: that of being the FDA CPS Section national health and safety (H&S) officer, protecting her colleagues from the potential negative impact of their demanding jobs. Realising how endemic the issue of stress was throughout the CPS, she knew something had to be done.

Wheatley discovered the extent of this problem through her union work. She was invited to the department’s Health and Safety Committee meetings, and received regular updates on staff attendance. Wheatley explains the importance of this information: “We need to know why people aren’t at work, and whether or not this is related to an injury at work - whether that’s mental or physical”. By assessing whether illness is caused by workplace conditions, she argues, future sickness can be prevented.

In her own union casework, Wheatley had already noticed an increase of members being referred to her who were absent from work due to issues relating to stress, anxiety, and other problems caused by excessive workloads. The raw data from the department confirmed that stress and mental health issues were the single highest cause for both short-term and long-term absence.

Why is this such a major problem in the CPS? “I think the fact that the department has lost a third of its staff since 2010 has had an impact,” Wheatley tells us. Over the decade of 2008-2018, the government’s justice budget was slashed by 27%, and – as the FDA’s Manifesto for Justice illustrates – these cuts hampered CPS recruitment and retention. This, in turn, led to increased pressure on individuals (who need to complete necessary work with fewer resources), and the absence of more experienced staff. “While we still have some very able and capable people working in the organisation, we’ve lost many who have twenty/thirty years’ experience doing the job,” Wheatley continues. “That has reduced the amount of people who are capable of mentoring and supporting other people in the organisation”. A rapid increase of digitalisation, without accompanying bespoke training, also caused problems for certain individuals.

Wheatley called for further investigation into the causes and prevention of stress, and the Health and Safety Committee welcomed her suggestion. “CPS management were concerned as well,” she says, as were representatives from the PCS union, and everyone wanted to work together to find a solution. Wheatley started to research best practice for dealing with workplace stress, and found that NHS trusts had done a lot of work in this area.

“A number of them had their own cradle to grave policies, procedures, flowcharts, stress-risk assessment forms,” she discovered, so she spent several months delving into this material. “I was able to cherry-pick the best aspects of a number of different policies, and was able to put together something that I was happy with, PCS colleagues were happy with, and CPS management were receptive to.

“There were some tweaks and changes, and we had a very constructive dialogue between ourselves and management,” Wheatley continues. Ultimately, the brand-new CPS Managing Work-Related Stress Policy was finalised, and launched in April, 2019. It’s believed to be the first of its kind implemented in any UK government department or agency.

“It includes new safeguards to protect wellbeing, including self-assessments and managerial assessments of staff to detect signs of stress in individuals. “A key aspect of this policy is prevention,” Wheatley says. “Once somebody’s off, it’s a lot harder to get them back, and they’re more likely to be off for longer. If we can take steps before people go on sick leave, that’s clearly beneficial for them, and beneficial for the service, too”.

"The policy that we’ve got up and running, having already been tested to a certain extent in NHS trusts, could certainly be used as a blueprint in other departments".

Wheatley is keen to analyse the results of the policy she worked so hard to instate. “I’m hoping to see that there’s a reduction in the amount of stress and mental health absences,” she explains. “From a rep’s point of view, I have already been steering members towards the new policy so that they can have discussions with their line manager.

“The next kind of data that I need will be again through the Health and Safety Committee, to look at how many stress assessments have been done through the new policy”.

Though a major concern within the CPS, the department is not the only one to have witnessed the detrimental impact of staff stress. In May 2019, Civil Service World reported that “staff sickness absence due to mental ill health cost the Home Office more than £12m last year”, as “other departments have reported losing hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of staff time to stress alone”. A total of 78% of respondents to the FDA’s 2019 Working Hours Survey agreed that working excess hours had adversely affected their wellbeing.

The FDA continues to tackle the root causes of stress, including under-resourcing and punitive workplace cultures which encourage staff to take on unmanageable workloads. But as the union strives to make these issues a thing of the past, Wheatley’s policy provides immediate relief to suffering colleagues. This, in turn, will help the CPS in its promotion of justice. Could it not be replicated across the government?

Wheatley is adamant that it could. “The policy that we’ve got up and running, having already been tested to a certain extent in NHS trusts, could certainly be used as a blueprint in other departments”. We may all look forward to employers heeding her advice and following CPS’s suit.

For more information about the CPS Managing Work-Related Stress Policy, or for support tackling stress in your workplace, contact info@fda.org.uk.  

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