WORKING EXTRA: If 99 per cent of public sector communicators work extra hours this feels like a problem


It’s long been a hunch the public sector would collapse if it wasn’t for good will and free overtime.

None more so than in comms teams.

That extra comms plan? Take it home, stay a little longer, work through lunch, just do a bit on Sunday night to make the week easier. It’s all been done.

But how much of it takes place?

The NHS recently hit the headlines when consultants were working to rule rather than take on paid overtime that landed them with eye-watering tax bills.

It made me think about unpaid time public sector communicators put in. In an unscientific survey, I asked the members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group and more than 250 responded.

Extra hours are almost universal

The results were not surprising.

Working over or out-of-hours is nearly universal.

Far from being an occasional thing out-of-hours or extra working has become so mainstream its not hard to see teams failing to deliver without it.

  • 99 per cent of public sector communicators surveyed work over their allotted hours.
  • Almost half work ad hoc extra hours
  • A third work up to five hours extra a week
  • 13 per cent work more than 10 hours extra every week.

meta-chart (12)

Of course, the extra odd hour here and there isn’t a problem. It can take team through peaks and troughs.

But is it the odd hour?

Or have we reached a point where public sector comms wouldn’t operate without that extra freely given time?

One in ten work more than 10 extra hours

This for me is one of the eye-catching numbers. If the standard working week is just less than 40 hours, 10 extra hours a week is a big chunk of time. It’s 25 per cent extra. It’s two hours extra every working day.  That’s 12 extra full working weeks a year just to stand still.

That doesn’t feel healthy.

The situation isn’t healthy

A cursory glance at the health risks of long hours at work shows a higher risk of strokes with a third greater risk.

The Japanese have a work for death by overwork. Karoshi is a problem that affects salarymen whose long hours and poor diets.

The reality is that some comms people in that number are quite literally working themselves into the ground. Ironically, one area where working out-of-hours or extra time seems bad is the NHS itself.

The on-call rota

One place where it has a serious impact is emergency planning. It’s funny how things very often kick-off outside office hours. Grenfell was in the small hours and the MEN Arena explosion was late at night.

Without proper cover the organisation is ill-placed to respond but anecdotally, proper cover is often rare. ‘It’s a risk they think is worth taking,’ one group member complained.

What’s the way round it? Spanish practices

One communicator, who wanted to remain anonymous, has travel in her remit but can’t claim the hours spent in cars and trains back as flexi-time. Her boss turns a blind eye at her informally claiming some time back. But HR would have had kittens if they knew, she was privately warned.

This leads on to the wider point of decent management. I’ve had decent managers and I’ve had absolute eye-watering shockers. I’m sure we all have. I worked in one team where we would have gone over the top into enemy fire for each other because we knew we all had each others back. Looking back I see how rare that was. One key ingredient was the Spanish practice of extra time off here and there.

Flexi time

One thing the straw poll didn’t ask in any detail was how easy it was to recover lost hours through flexi-time. Anecdotally, this is often a grey area. Over a certain amount and it can get lost. Sometimes its easy to take. Sometimes its not.

So what happens next?

Before you head back to your to-do list spare a moment.

This idea of overwork ironically needs more work. This quick poll I think doesn’t give definitive view but has exposed a serious issue.

Nobody’s agenda other than yours will dominated if you die early or go off with stress.

It’s not clock-watching, its ensuring you are healthy enough to do a good job and see your children grow up.

It may be one for an organisation that looks after the interests of public sector communicators but its also absolutely something for you to think about as an individual and for your manager to reflect on.

 Picture credit: istock

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