Doctors, Teachers and Garbage Men Are Way More Stressed Than You

Bureaucracy can be super exhausting.
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Walk down a residential street in London at 9 p.m. and you’ll see a smattering of dimmed bedroom lights and drawn curtains. Tucked up in each bed may be a British civil servant.

Nearly half of government workers in the U.K. come home from work exhausted most or all the time, compared with a third of all workers, according to a new survey by from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a human-resources organization. Public workers also reported more stress and fatigue than employees in any other sector.

“The bureaucracy wears you down,” said Michael Docherty, who spent six months working at the U.K. Treasury. “I certainly felt more tired there at the end of the day than in any other job I’ve had.”


The workload might not be any greater than in a private-sector job, he said, but it feels that way because of government procedure and internal politics. Docherty said he had to draw up lengthy, detailed proposals for review by a board of individuals with little knowledge of a proposal to get funding for each step of a project that — as a whole — had already been approved and budgeted.

And your job description and targets could be ripped up every five years when the U.K. elects a new government — with, presumably, new priorities.

Nearly one in five public-sector workers say their job makes them worried most or all time – double the proportion of private-sector employees, the survey said.

Some of the stress could be attributable to successive budget cuts, said Claire McCartney, a research adviser for the institute that commissioned the survey.

“While job satisfaction has increased, exhaustion and pressure levels have stayed the same,” McCartney said. “Public-sector employers need to get to these other issues, otherwise it’s going to cost them and the economy.”

Britain’s government, while still a huge employer with 5.3 million workers as of June, has whittled down its staff in recent years after budget cuts. According to the Office for National Statistics, public-sector employment is at its lowest level since the current method of recording workers began in 1999.

Despite all the exhaustion and stress, public workers had a higher overall job satisfaction than workers in the private sector — a first in the institute's survey.

Docherty, who has worked in both the private and public sector, said it was tough to pick a favorite. “In the private sector, it was basically expected that whatever hours it took to get stuff done, you did it, and didn’t expect anything back,” he said. The civil service was the opposite.

Docherty said his public-sector managers were quick to make sure he had a good work-life balance. “I do wonder if the effect may be partially generated by the fact that lots of people in the civil service are there for life and haven't had much recent experience outside it,” he said.

Net satisfaction among public sector workers is up 13 points from the same survey taken in spring, showing a significant improvement that McCartney says could be attributed to optimism with the new government, and its messaging around fairness and equality.

But job satisfaction improving while stress and tiredness stay stagnant is a worrying sign. “Although job satisfaction going up is great, public sector employers need to address these issues,” McCartney said. “It’s an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away.”

Aside from spreading workers more thinly, a broader shift in public sector attitudes to work has also made the job more stressful, said John Coe, a spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education.

“Business ethics have been applied to a social service,” he said. “Schools are placed in a competitive situation, delivering targets set by an external body – the government – with high stakes involved.”


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