Social Justice

DWP faces 'crisis' as staff driven to 'depression' and 'sickness' amid mounting pressure

A new report has revealed the realities of working for the DWP. "Every day feels like drowning," one staff member said

DWP

The Department for Work and Pensions is facing calls for urgent change. Image: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing an “epidemic of mental ill health” among its staff due to pressures and “poor working conditions”, the civil servants’ union has revealed.

Hundreds of staff in Jobcentres and across the DWP have written to the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) to share their experiences of a “staffing crisis”.

“DWP is a failing organisation in a state of crisis,” Martin Cavanagh, the PCS DWP group president, warned. “This crisis has been created by a government whose policies are vindictive towards claimants that need support and not the punishment that our members are expected to dish out.”

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More than one in four staff paid are below the real living wage and, following the Autumn Statement, nearly all of these will now fall below the national living wage that is due to be introduced in April.

“Low pay means that it is extremely difficult for the department to recruit and retain staff,” Cavanagh added. “Poor working conditions, particularly in Jobcentres where staff are refused the opportunity to work from home in any circumstances, means that staff are either leaving the DWP or attempting to find job roles within the department that they believe are less stressful.”

“Some minor easements have been introduced to manage workloads, but they do not go nearly far enough to address the shortfall of staff. The members’ testimonies demonstrate that the staffing crisis in DWP is creating an epidemic of mental ill health amongst staff and failing to protect the most vulnerable citizens in society.”

It follows Big Issue reporting which revealed the pressures faced by disability benefits assessors, who were driven to “panic attacks” and “illness” due to the target-driven environment. Benefits claimants were impacted by this as it led to “mistakes” being made in decision-making.

This is reflected within this new PCS report. “I am constantly chasing my tail, making stupid mistakes due to the pace I am working at,” responded a prison work coach supporting prisoners to access their benefits.

One staff member at a service centre told the PCS: “Every day felt like drowning, getting upwards of 60 messages from claimants to deal with, on top of all the other work. I’ve been in my role for several years and this was the worst it has gotten.

“It worsened my mental health to the point of severe burnout, with constant headaches when I am at work and bad anxiety. At its worst, it pushed me to self–harm and heavy contemplation of suicide.”

Another added: “Staff are leaving due to workload pressure and the more flexible working arrangements that other departments offer. Work coaches like me are currently told to prioritise mandatory appointments as we simply do not have the capacity to see all claimants.

“This means completely ignoring our heavy caseload of people with English as a foreign language. A local Jobcentre is closing and the thousands of claimants in that area are being sent to us.”

A staff member working front of house for Jobcentre Plus said: “I am currently off sick with stress and depression. It is no longer a nice place to work.”



The DWP claims it provides a “supportive and compassionate service”. A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the wellbeing of our staff, and provide access to a comprehensive range of assistance for their physical and mental health.

“We have recruitment plans in place to maintain key services – providing excellent opportunities for existing staff and new recruits who are playing a vital role in our next generation welfare reforms to help thousands back into jobs, grow the economy and drive down inflation.”

But nearly one in 10 frontline civil servants, including those working in the DWP, are on benefits to boost their pay, as previously reported by the Big Issue.

One former staff member, who worked at the DWP for more than four decades, said: “I am totally worn out physically and mentally. My health has suffered enormously, having to struggle with always being understaffed.

“This is because of constant pressure, poor pay and staff leaving to go better jobs with better pay and less stress. So I have resigned… I felt I had no other option.”

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt previously announced a “civil service headcount cap” to “stop any further expansion”. This does not impact current recruitment drives, but the PCS and civil servants warn the DWP much recruit at much wider scale rather than capping numbers.

A big focus for the DWP is targets and efficiency, according to staff members. A compliance officer in Liverpool said: “My workload has gone up tenfold over the last three years. Nobody in senior management has listened to my worries over my mental health. I have a medical condition but they don’t listen or care. It’s all about targets. It’s sickening.”

The PCS is calling on the government and DWP to ensure that there are enough staff to ensure there is a “system that provides a genuine safety net for its citizens”. It believes that 30,000 additional staff are needed, on top of different priorities to ensure a “modern and supportive welfare state”.

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