Mental health and the public sector

Partnerships Bulletin’s Freedom of Information requests unearthed a potential timebomb for under-resourced public authorities

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Mental health problems are often driven by a range of complex factors. 

However, work pressures can often contribute to poor mental health, and as public sector employees managing PFI contracts face a deluge of difficulties - from continued cost pressures and cuts, to demands for performance improvements and preparations for handback - those pressures are only likely to increase.

Partnerships Bulletin used Freedom of Information requests to 320 UK public sector organisations that currently have PFI contracts on their books, to discover the extent to which pressures from those contracts might be contributing to mental health problems in the sector.

Figures revealed that 10% of staff from the 234 organisations that responded had taken sick leave due to stress during the 18 months. That is far lower than statistics that estimate stress could be a factor in four in 10 work absences.

However, what was particularly revealing about the results of the FoI requests was the number of authorities that stated they do not hold the statistics. Almost a quarter (24%) responded that they did not hold the relevant information. A variety of reasons were given for this, including in some cases the small number of staff involved meaning to publish the information would potentially enable medical details of individuals to be discovered.

One of the most common reasons, though, was that the authority simply did not have anyone managing their PFI contracts - with all responsibility passed over to the private sector partner.

As handback of contracts moves steadily closer, the potential for a huge raft of new work to be dumped on unsuspecting public sector workers, who are suddenly asked to deal with contacts that they have not had any sight of or dealing with for many years, means there could be a major source of stress coming down the line. 

It also raises issues over the quality of the delivery of those contracts, given that it would be assumed that little to no attention has been given to whether the private partner has been following the contract. The figures could also provide some illumination on how some advisors have been able to take an aggressive approach to contract management, by coming into projects that have had little to no public sector scrutiny, and present the public partner with a list of non-compliance issues - even if the private party has assumed the partner had been happy with its service.

When those authorities who could not or would not provide information are stripped out of the findings, and only those authorities that provided figures on the number of staff members who had taken absences due to stress, it becomes clear that over a fifth of staff (21%) have taken time off due to stress in the 18 months from January 2021.

Pressure - from managing contracts, through demands for savings and to the added work required to prepare for handback - is clearly building in the market.