The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) twice refused to launch an investigation into serious concerns that multiple work coaches on the same floor of a city centre jobcentre had experienced “mental breakdowns” because of work-related stress.
The agency was told in April this year, and again two months later, that more than a third of the work coaches on a single floor of Oxford jobcentre (pictured) had experienced a mental health crisis in just one year (see separate story).
HSE is the national regulator for workplace health and safety, but it is “sponsored” as a government agency by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the department responsible for running jobcentres.
The minister responsible for HSE is a DWP minister, Mims Davies, and HSE’s chair is a former minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton.
HSE this week denied suggestions that it refused to investigate the concerns at Oxford jobcentre because of its close links with DWP.
The concerns were raised with HSE by former work coach Jake Baker*, who told the agency that 10 current and former DWP staff were willing to provide evidence about those concerns.
Seven of those willing to give evidence had themselves experienced a significant collapse in their mental health after having to deal with 27 appointments a day with claimants, when they previously had between 17 and 19, an increase of more than 40 per cent.
Some of the appointments were “extremely complex” claimants and seen as “very vulnerable” and requiring intensive support.
Baker first informed HSE about the concerns in April, when he warned the regulator that six work coaches and one administrative officer in the team – who worked with claimants aged 24 to 50 – had taken time off with stress-related conditions because of the workload.
He said that 11 team members had quit due to working conditions.
All the resignations and episodes of mental distress followed preparations that began in November 2021 for a DWP initiative that aimed to increase the number of universal credit claimants returning to employment after losing their jobs during the pandemic.
But despite Baker emphasising that multiple employees had been affected, HSE told him that it does “not investigate individual cases because stress and its impact, is subjective”.
It also said it could not investigate the concerns because Baker was currently involved in an employment tribunal case against DWP over his treatment.
Two months later, after he had withdrawn his tribunal claim because of his own deteriorating mental health – triggered by the increase in his workload and lack of adequate and specialist support from managers – he approached HSE again.
He told the regulator that he and nine former colleagues were prepared to testify, at least six of whom had experienced work-related “mental health breakdowns” while working at the jobcentre.
This time, HSE told him: “Unfortunately because you are no longer employed you cannot provide evidence to demonstrate that stress is an ongoing problem in the Jobcentre or that people are still being adversely affected.
“Consequently, this case would not meet our criteria and HSE will not be able to undertake further investigation.”
When approached by Disability News Service (DNS) this week, HSE insisted that all its decisions are made independently.
But it failed to explain why it twice rejected the opportunity to investigate the allegations about the safety of the working environment on the first floor of Oxford jobcentre when so many people were willing to provide evidence.
Instead, it said in a statement: “Concerns were made to us and after looking into the matters raised we felt they did not meet our criteria to investigate further.
“All employers need to recognise their legal duty to prevent work-related stress and to support good mental health in the workplace.”
It provided a link to its criteria for investigating work-related stress, which appears to show that the concerns passed on by Jake Baker met those criteria.
The document states: “HSE will only consider investigating potential issues of work-related stress where it is evident that several employees are experiencing work-related stress or related ill health.”
DWP did not deny this week that so many work coaches had resigned, or that many of them had experienced a work-related mental health crisis following their increased workload.
But it insisted that it was committed to supporting staff wellbeing and that it takes “staff concerns very seriously and are committed to tackling any issues that are raised”.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We are committed to supporting the wellbeing of our staff, and provide access to a comprehensive range of assistance for their physical and mental health and financial wellbeing.
“This includes the department’s employee assistance programme, a community of mental health first aiders and ambassadors for fair treatment.
“We take any staff concerns very seriously and are committed to tackling any issues that are raised.”
It also insisted that it was legally required to provide information and cooperate with any investigation when requested by HSE.
Baker told DNS this week: “The Health and Safety Executive has failed the very people it is supposed to protect. The system appears to be dysfunctional by design.
“It is not reasonable to expect the state to investigate itself. Where is the impartiality?
“As with the DWP, when raising concerns, the whistleblower is met with fierce resistance and is worn down by a series of bureaucratic closed loops.
“Extremely disappointing and equally concerning.”
*Not his real name. He has asked for his name not to be used, although both DWP and HSE are aware of his identity
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