SURVEY: Public sector communicators are stressed, often abused but feel as though they are working for the common good

Public sector communications and PR people in the pandemic say they have endured verbal abuse, stress and a lack of leadership.

But they are buoyed by a strong sense of working for the common good across police, fire, NHS, central and local government.

That’s the top lines from more than 450 people from across the United Kingdom took part in the survey I carried out in June and July.

But the data reveals a contrasting experience across the sector with local government, NHS and police bearing the brunt.

Why carry it out? I was mindful that the comments I was hearing weren’t getting mapped.

The data published in this blog is from questions asked in summer 2020 and was carried out after 12 weeks of pandemic with UK-wide lockdown being eased.

I’m now keen as the pandemic moves on to map as a tracker what people think now.

If you are a public sector communicator I’d be grateful if you spared a few minutes on the October update of the survey here.

A moment in history

In the summer, three quarters of public sector comms people felt as though they were working for the common good with a third feeling as though they were a part of history.

Almost half felt as though they worked for an organisation that was valued with the figure rising to 52.7 per cent for NHS comms staff.

Stress and a lack of leadership

Two thirds of public sector comms people felt more stressed in the pandemic with police topping the chart on 71.9 percent and local government on 70.1 per cent.

But communicators also spoke of a lack of leadership from their home government with two fifths overall complaining of a lack of direction.

Breaking down into country, just over half of communicators in England complained of a lack of government leadership compared to just 5.5 per cent in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, the figure was 18.5 per cent and just nine per cent in Wales.

A tenth said they had trouble working and caring for a loved one and more than a third said they struggled to home school their children.

The local government experience: at the brunt of the abuse

If you work in local government you’ve had a tough summer of pandemic.

General verbal abuse aimed at the council was experienced by 70 per cent of council PR and comms people with 17.4 per cent seeing it daily. More targeted abuse against individuals was seen weekly by 14.2 percent of communicators.

Anecdotally, respondents didn’t feel as though the pandemic had led to an increase in abuse. The pre-COVID-19 baseline just continued but staff were quicker to say ‘thank you’ when something had worked.

Alarmingly, threats of violence were seen by one in ten.

Racist abuse has been experienced by a quarter of local government comms staff.

To balance this, this sector reported the highest sense of working for the common good at 77.2 per cent and at working as part of a team at 54.5 per cent.

The central government experience: the most confidence in home government

Communicators in governments across the UK reported the second lowest stress levels with 54.7 per cent saying stress had increased since the pandemic.

They also reported the lowest rate of complaints on a lack of leadership in home government with 35.7 per cent but were the sector reporting the least resources to do the job at less than 30 per cent.

Verbal abuse was seen by only a third with just 1.1 per cent seeing it daily.

The NHS experience: valued but stressed

NHS communicators have felt the most stressed but have felt the most valued.

Eight out of 10 have felt they were working for the common good and more than half felt valued.

They’ve also seen lower than average abuse with two thirds not reporting any and just 3.3 per cent seeing it daily – a fifth of the public sector average.

NHS communicators have by far the lowest threats of violence against staff with 97.8 per cent not reporting seeing any. Racist abuse in the sector is less frequent compared to other sectors with 89 per cent not seeing any.

But they have the highest rate – 40.6 per cent – of isolation and complain of the worst leadership in their organisation at 19.8 per cent.

The police experience: strong team work in the face of stress and abuse

Police communicators reported the highest levels of stress with 71.2 per cent report feeling more stressed during the pandemic.

Team work in thin blue line comms has been strong with the highest rating – 62.5 per cent – of any of the public sector.

Abuse is rife with comments aimed at their force is seen daily by four fifths of comms staff. In addition, almost 10 per cent report being personally singled out for abuse and seeing threats of violence daily.

Racist abuse was highest with a third of communicators seeing it weekly – three times higher than any other sector.

The fire experience: less stress away from the COVID-19 sharp end

Fire comms people have felt the lowest rate of all sectors for feeling as though they were working for the common good.

Unsurprising as they are less in the public health or law and order front line.

They are the sector reporting the lowest increase in stress – 42.9 per cent – but complain they are the worst informed. Almost 60 per cent say there is a lack of information from central government

Generic abuse is lowest in fire and rescue with just 4.6 per cent encountering any.

The experience in England: poor leadership from home government

A lack of leadership in UK government which managed the pandemic in England was the stand-out issue.

The problem was flagged-up by 41 per cent of public sector comms people – eight times the rate of Scotland and twice the rate of Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of information from government was also highlighted with a third of people – twice the rate of other countries.

Communicators in England also found it more difficult than other UK countries but they reported the highest rates of feeling part of a team at 54 per cent. More than half witnessed abuse.

The experience in Scotland: strong leadership but difficult home schooling

In Scotland, there was the strongest sense of working for the common good (83 per cent) and the lowest complaint of a lack of information from home government at less than one in ten.

Home schooling was the biggest problem in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK with 41 per cent raising it as an issue.

The Northern Ireland experience: hard but no extremes

In Northern Ireland, public sector communicators avoided the more extreme fluctuations.

A majority said they found working in the pandemic harder than before and were more stressed but the country did not top any tables.

A total of 48 per cent said they saw abuse – the lowest in the UK – and 22 per cent complained of a lack of staff – the second lowest if the four countries.

The experience in Wales: for the common good

There was a strong feeling of working for the common good (75 per cent) with comms teams in Wales reporting the highest country for working as a team with 54 per cent.

One in five complained of a lack of information and a sense of leadership from Welsh Government – up to half the comparable rate in England.

Complaints about the difficulty of home schooling were broadly similar across the UK with Wales rate of 36 per cent marginally less than other countries.

Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest upheaval to the UK since World War Two ended 75 years ago. It has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Communicators across the public sector have responded strongly.

But behind the headlines, there is a workforce of public sector communicators working at stress with abuse in local government and police endemic.

Working at pace and under stress is not sustainable and attention needs to be paid to the long term health of those being asked to respond. A reminder email asking staff to take breaks on top of

What’s been fascinating looking at the June figures is a feeling that the landscape has changed for the worse. They’ll be a useful benchmark against a new October survey.

Of course, this survey is unscientific. But it does carry representative samples across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in NHS, fire, central government and local government.

Notes

The survey included the views of 456 UK public sector communicators with 88.2 per cent classing themselves as White English, Welsh, Scottish or British, 4.1 per cent white Irish, 1.5 percent Asian or Asian British, 1.8 per cent multiple ethnikc groups and 3.5 per cent other.

Of those surveyed, 76.7 per cent were English compared to English making-up 84.1 per cent of the UK population. Scottish respondents were 7.8 per cent in the survey compared to being 8.1 per cent of the UK’s population. Wales represented 9.6 per cent of the survey and 4.6 per cent of the population with Northern Ireland 5.9 per cent of those who gave their views – twice the comparative size of their population.

If you’re public sector, do please spare a few minutes to say how you feel in October after this months of pandemic comms.

EDIT:

References to home government in Wales were updated to Welsh Government.

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