A survey of nearly 200 staff working for various MPs, the first of its kind in the UK, has found that almost half met the medical threshold for psychological distress – more than twice the level in the general population.
An anonymous worker has shared their experience while trying to serve the public:
No one working for an MP expects sympathy. We are, after all, a part of the much-loathed “Westminster bubble”, tarred with the same toxicity our bosses experience for their political affiliations. We are vociferously proud that we contribute to the democratic process, and hopefully we make real differences to the lives of constituents. But staffing for MPs is in dire straits.
The days often start the same: working through an inbox filled with abuse, pictures of maimed children in war-torn countries, constituents in desperate need of help, and whatever else the issue of the day happens to be. The phone rings and a distressed voice on the end of the line is contemplating suicide. Or perhaps it’s a victim of childhood sexual abuse relaying details of their awful experiences and seeking support for their mental health.
Listening to, and trying to solve, problems you have no expertise in takes its toll. We aren’t trained for this. We don’t have accreditations or people to guide us. At the end of the day, we can’t switch off. Politics never sleeps, so you best be available 24/7.
It never used to be this bad. I’ve been around for over a decade and major crises used to come around occasionally. A few late nights with all hands at the pumps and we could weather the storm. The past few years have been different. Brexit, Covid, Afghanistan, Ukraine and the cost of living crisis have dominated a parliamentary staffer’s every waking moment. The unending pressure has got to most of us. Many of my colleagues have moved on or fallen foul of stress, anxiety or depression.
When things start to go wrong, perhaps from burnout or an argument with a boss who is equally struggling under constant pressure, relationships start to break down. There is no HR, no mediation and no pastoral care. Toxicity festers and grows without a good manager to step in, but they, too, often have their backs against the wall coordinating the responses to crises.
Things need to change. Parliament can be slow to adapt, held up by tradition and process. But we now have a Speaker who cares about staff and MPs in key roles who understand what we are going through. The time is right to make parliament a leader in employment practices: making HR and mediation available, providing relevant training and making sure offices have the capacity – and capability – to look after their staff.
With close to 3,500 parliamentary staff in Westminster and dotted around the UK, we are an integral part of what MPs do. Unless we improve working lives in MPs’ offices, tackle the causes of mental strain and encourage the retention of talent, democracy will be worse off in the long run, much like some of my former colleagues are.