Under Pressure

Working on high value contracts to provide for the public sector is always challenging. But increasingly aggressive tactics and the added pressure of expiry and handback are taking a human toll. Paul Jarvis reports

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“In the early days of PFI, ‘partnership’ was a term used routinely; it was at the centre of bids, for example. But it has become a challenge in certain projects to deliver genuine partnership working.”

This is the view of one management services provider, who has seen a number of staff face difficulties as projects have become more adversarial in nature. Over recent months, Partnerships Bulletin has highlighted the issues facing the UK PFI market, as a more antagonistic approach to contract management from the private sector has pervaded the industry and threatened to undermine contracts.

Now, we take a look at the human cost and consider some of the examples of behaviour that are affecting not only the ability of partners to deliver the levels of services expected, but also to retain staff and properly look after their wellbeing.

As a more adversarial approach has been seen across a number of projects, the divide between the public and private sectors has become increasingly evident. As one MSA suggests, it is for organisations such as theirs to bridge the cultural divide between the two sectors. However, evidence from a number of those in the industry suggests that this is becoming increasingly difficult.

“We are not asking the public sector for an easy ride: we are saying we are professionals and we would like you to behave like professionals too,” says another management services provider. They point to small instances that constantly chip away at staff - such as being asked in a meeting when trying to navigate a way to an agreement on an issue, “Are you stupid?”

“That is a small example but it happens often on some of these more aggressively managed contracts. That is not the way to speak to someone in a professional environment.”

“There have to be tough conversations: there’s a lot of value at stake,” begins one industry professional with experience in both the public and private sectors. “But what cannot happen is that this becomes personal. There has to be a recognition that the relationship is of significant value.”

Troubling behaviour

That is not the only sort of behaviour that is concerning some professionals. “What is most concerning is the mechanism that allows external advisors to come into projects and raise a series of issues that we will never be able to deliver on. 

“For example, sending through hundreds of requests in a week, with every one categorised as ‘emergency’. It is impossible to deal with all of those, and many we would suggest are not emergencies but we are not able to dictate that - and those that are real emergencies to be dealt with are then lost in the pile.”

The experience is that there has been a shift in recent years as partners gear up for the handback and expiry of contracts and are seeking to extract as much value out of the contracts as possible. “There is no willingness for dialogue,” says one practitioner.

Another example can be seen from the issues that many hospitals faced with firestopping issues, when the problem came to the forefront of everyone’s mind in the wake of the Grenfell fire and some firestopping facilities were found to be wanting across a number of hospitals.

“With some partners we managed to focus on safety, put an agreed programme in place and work to remedy it within an agreed timeframe,” says one service provider. “On some other contracts, the approach was to drive the private sector into the ground and make it as difficult for us as possible.”

And it doesn’t stop there. One source says that their access to carry out certain lifecycle works has been restricted in some hospitals - on the basis that the location is in constant use and therefore there is no time available to take it out of action while lifecycle works are carried out. However, there is a concern that they will be penalised for not having carried out the contractual requirements and have attempted to get their partners to sign a derogation to ensure that they are covered.

At this point, the source says, staff have on occasion been subjected to aggressive behaviour and a refusal.

Some argue that part of the problem appears to be a refusal to accept the original premise of the contract in certain cases. “If people are not appraising the deal for what it is, there is a risk that the whole commercial basis is undermined,” argues one source who has worked on both sides of the divide. “People need to recognise what the original purpose of the deal was.”

These real life examples can cause significant impact on individuals and in some instances there is a belief that these types of behaviours are being tacitly accepted by those in more senior positions. “It appears to be a commercial strategy that has a direct human cost,” claims one service provider. “Behaviours are too concerted across projects to be coincidental. People are clearly being told these behaviours are acceptable.

“We are supposed to be more cognisant of mental health issues today - damage to mental health should not be inflicted to try to squeeze some money out of the private sector.”

However, industry experts believe that it is not a one-way street, and that the mental health of those working on the ground is being affected regardless of whether they are working for public or private employers. 

“Working with the public sector as a client, there is no doubt that over the last decade the impact of austerity and spending cuts has put a lot of pressure on everyone working on major projects,” says one senior consultant.

One source recounts in stark terms the pressures being placed on some members of staff in the public sector, whose salaries have been either implicitly or in some cases explicitly linked to the amount of savings and reductions in monthly charges being made. This creates a highly stressful environment for all involved.

In response, it is understood that the Infrastructure & Projects Authority (IPA) is looking at ways in which it can tackle the issue. There are suggestions that a mental health ‘tsar’ could be brought in to help improve the direction of travel, carrying out research into the issue. Meanwhile, other ideas being mooted include the creation of a code of conduct as a way to ensure all parties are signed up to certain ways of behaving. 

Critics will argue that such a code will need to have teeth if it is to be meaningful, but the concept has been pushed by DLA Piper’s work in this area, through its so-called Project Autumn initiative that has issued a series of recommendations on how to handle some of the stresses and strains around PFI handback. 

Lasting impact

And it is having a clear impact on personnel. One source says three members of staff left in the first half of 2022, all because of the stress of the job. Meanwhile, a management services provider says that although they have managed to retain staff, the firm has had to support general managers and others who have been forced to take up to six months off with stress-related illnesses.

“Operational staff are bearing the brunt of a shift in behaviours and are suffering more with stress and similar conditions,” says one provider.

“Subcontractors are losing account leads and technical people because they don’t want to work in that environment. We have had contracts where the FM provider can’t get the staff to replace roles.”

“As well as the human cost, this has an obvious impact on a project and the ability to successfully deliver services. Sometimes it can cause challenges to recruit good people,” adds one consultant.


Perhaps one of the unique things about the way PFIs work is that those dealing with many of these pressures day-to-day (whether cleaners, project managers, helpdesk staff or others) will find pressures coming from organisations other than their employers.

Therefore, it can often be difficult for a company to have full sight of their staff’s difficulties - unless the structures are in place to allow them to share their problems. “Working in collaboration, to a common aim, with a more positive culture, people are far more energised and can confidently take initiative,” argues an advisor.

In a PPP scheme, with so many different organisations coming together, a weak link in any of that chain can result in significant pressure being placed on individuals.

“Companies need to look after their people and treat them with decency,” says one management services provider. “That is compassionate leadership. It doesn’t mean not having difficult conversations or being demanding of those staff.”

So what can be done to tackle this problem? While the culture within organisations is clearly a critical step, those entities will need to go further to ensure their staff are properly supported - and to be clear where the pressures are coming from and how they can be mitigated.

It is well known now that a number of providers will rotate their project managers around different projects so that those who are working on a difficult scheme are less likely to suffer stress-related illnesses (and, at an earlier stage, still have a commitment and enjoyment in their job).

Such rotation - whether done as a strict routine or based on employee feedback - can be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, individuals are being looked after; but on the other, project expertise is being lost with their removal, and this can cause disruption, especially as projects head towards expiry and having a good understanding of how they have developed and evolved over time can be really useful.

Some point out that by keeping the staff within the business - rather than them leaving because of stress - does at least mean the expertise is retained in-house, if not specifically on that project.

There are other processes being put in place, too.

“As an advisory and project management business, we talk a lot about resilience within the team and provide training in this area,” says one source. “On many projects everyone is under significant pressure and, understandably, this will flow down from the public sector and those leading on a project, to those providing services. We need to be able to manage that and focus on providing the highest quality services.”

“That is linked to the structure that they are in, where they know the support from above is there for them when things become challenging,” continues another provider. “We help people cope with difficult situations and difficult PFI contracts by trying to create a sense of cohesion and living the experiences with the individuals.”

Other solutions being developed by employers include an assistance helpline for employees and their families to access counselling.

“The key thing is to anticipate the issue,” says one provider. “If we sense greater rigour is being applied on a contract, we try to anticipate that by having the correct level of resource on the ground.”