Why civil servants shouldn’t check their emails on holiday

Garry Graham of Prospect argues that cultivating a healthy work-life balance for employees will benefit the public sector

A recent survey by Prospect found that a quarter of its members in the civil service expect to check their email on annual leave this summer

Civil servants are increasingly working overtime and face being continually on call for major emergencies. Whitehall staff need uninterrupted breaks to recharge their batteries – even if that means leaving some summer emails unanswered

A recent survey by Prospect of its members in the civil service found that a quarter expect they will have to check emails on their annual leave.

It is one of many startling statistics from a survey that has time and again shown the huge pressure the public sector is under – resulting from seven years of cuts in spending, head count reductions and frozen public sector pay.

Our survey also found that, far from the stereotypes that still persist in some quarters, civil servants work incredibly hard, putting in an average of nine hours overtime each week – more than an additional day each week.

So, when they are working so hard throughout the year, don’t they deserve a proper uninterrupted break?

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And, fairness aside, there are other good reasons why ministers and senior managers should make sure civil servants can enjoy their time off.

Getting work-life balance right has lots of advantages. It increases motivation and makes it easier to retain employees, something which is vital in the face of public sector pay restraint and emerging shortages of key skills in some parts of the civil service.

It also means that the civil service can keep widening the pool of applicants for vacancies beyond traditional recruiting grounds, especially important as a recent international comparison showed the UK has some way to go to catch up with the best civil services in the world on representing all of society.

It can also reduce the levels of absence, sickness and stress, which should be of real concern to the civil service as sick days taken because of mental health problems rise.

The risks from too little time off from work are real. The culture of unpaid overtime in Japan, for example, is now considered a major national problem, following recent high profile cases of “karoshi” – death from overwork. Japan also suffers, like the UK, from low productivity, suggesting that simply further lengthening working hours would do little to crack the productivity gap.

When there is a major emergency, civil servants always step up to the challenge; whether they are on holiday at the time or not. We have also seen this time and again. Whether it has been responding to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks this summer or to the major floods of June and July 2012, those working in the public sector drop what they are doing to help.

But the pressure to check in with the office and be continually on call now goes beyond these major emergencies and is becoming the norm. Peaks and troughs have turned into peaks and even greater peaks for many. This needs to stop. The Civil Service People Survey showed 42% of staff struggling to achieve an acceptable work-life balance.

Mobile technology has revolutionised society; it is now hard to imagine a world without the smartphone. It has helped us improve our public services in many ways, allowing citizens to engage more directly and quickly.

Used properly it can even help improve work-life balance by unlocking things like home working, which done properly can be a real benefit for some staff. The challenge for the civil service, like many other employers, is to harness these benefits while not succumbing to the dangers of always needing to be available. And what helps civil servants usually helps improve the services that everyone relies on, too.

Sam Trendall

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