More than a third of the work coaches on a single floor of a jobcentre experienced a mental health crisis in less than a year, due to the “dysfunctional” Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its “toxic” policies, whistleblowers have revealed.
Written and oral evidence seen by Disability News Service (DNS) shows that conditions for work coaches at the Oxford jobcentre became so stressful that 15 of those in one team of 23 quit within a 12-month period.
There have been years of concerns that DWP is institutionally disablist, not fit for purpose and unsafe for disabled people claiming benefits.
But the latest concerns suggest that the department is also unsafe for the work coaches employed to support benefit claimants into work.
Of the 15 who resigned from the team of 23 on the first floor of the Oxford jobcentre, it is believed that at least eight work coaches experienced a significant collapse in their mental health due to a huge, sudden increase in workload.
All the resignations and episodes of mental distress followed preparations that began in November 2021 for DWP’s Way to Work Initiative, which was launched publicly in January 2022 by the then work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.
The scheme was aimed at significantly increasing the number of universal credit claimants returning to employment after losing their jobs during the pandemic.
At the Oxford jobcentre, DNS has been told that work coaches instantly had to deal with 27 appointments a day, when they had previously had between 17 and 19, an increase of more than 40 per cent.
But at the same time there was also a significant increase in administrative tasks, and a decrease in the time work coaches had available to do that work.
This was ordered despite the local PCS union branch having warned two months earlier – in September 2021 – that it had been receiving reports of members “under so much stress of an impossible workload that they are logging on in the evening and weekends to catch up with admin”.
The union even organised two online meetings to discuss the concerns, two months before the workload was increased even further ahead of the Way to Work launch.
The increased workload meant that nearly all their appointments could last just 10 minutes – and often even less – with work coaches having to cope with back-to-back meetings throughout the day, and working through their breaks to catch up on administrative tasks.
When approached by DNS this week, DWP did not deny that so many work coaches had resigned, or that so many of them had experienced a work-related mental health crisis following the increase in their 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”.
DNS has now heard from four former DWP employees who worked in the jobcentre, and has also seen multiple pieces of written evidence that corroborate the allegations.
One work coach said: “I saw (and felt) the effect of this first hand, as myself and other work coaches were immediately overwhelmed and stressed by the increased workload.”
He said work coaches had been taught to take a “compassionate” approach in their training, but this was then dismissed by managers “in pursuit of numbers and statistics”.
He added: “It became quickly apparent that the only way to get an eased diary from management seemed to be by having a mental breakdown on-site.”
Nearly all the 23 members of the team, who worked on the first floor of the jobcentre in Oxford city centre with claimants aged 24 to 50, had been recruited at the same time during the pandemic.
There are believed to be as few as three of that team still working as work coaches at the jobcentre.
Another work coach, Jake Baker*, was particularly affected by the increased workload as he worked with violent and sexual offenders who had been released from prison on licence.
His significantly higher workload made it increasingly difficult to manage “very serious and critical safeguarding concerns” that he said “directly compromised staff and public safety”.
He made repeated attempts to alert his managers, district managers and even DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield to concerns about the number of work coaches being forced to leave their roles because of extreme mental distress caused by the increased workload.
He also raised “a catalogue of very serious DWP safeguarding failings, unfolding on a daily basis” in the jobcentre “as a result of the chaotic and highly dysfunctional working environment”.
He twice alerted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to the concerns about the impact on the mental health of work coaches, but on both occasions the DWP agency refused to investigate, despite being told that multiple current and former staff members were willing to provide evidence (see separate story).
Baker told DNS: “People are terrified to speak out and that’s how they continue to get away with it.
“Whistleblowers and their concerns are tightly wrapped up in confidentiality clauses. Without transparency, there can be no accountability.
“The expectations forced on the workforce were unreasonable and dangerous for both claimants and staff.”
He has described watching one colleague, whose mental health had gradually deteriorated after her workload increased, and had repeatedly had her requests for support ignored, “just screaming at the top of her voice” as she attempted to log into her computer one morning.
She collapsed at her desk, and she resigned soon afterwards.
Baker himself experienced a severe mental health crisis in April 2022, caused he says by a lack of adequate and specialist support and a hugely-increased workload, despite making several attempts to persuade DWP to implement “critical and reasonable changes”.
He later attempted a phased return to work with lighter duties but soon realised that he would have to resign after – he says – multiple failings by DWP to recognise and support his needs, and he resigned in October last year.
He said: “We were doing 27 appointments a day. I can’t describe the pressure. You could see people breaking overnight.”
DNS has seen a private message sent by an experienced female colleague, who told him: “I know you’ve been unwell for some time but I’m glad to see that you are making a phased return to work.
“I thought to myself, when you were off, ‘well it looks as though the department has broken [Jake]’ as they do with so many others due to workplace stress.”
He had multiple grievances rejected by DWP, although one – of bullying and excessive workload – was partially upheld.
This was confirmed by DWP this week, which said it acted on the grievance that was partially upheld.
One supportive statement from a colleague submitted as part of one of Baker’s grievances described the atmosphere at the jobcentre as “bizarre and toxic”.
Baker says he is aware of four other work coaches who raised concerns about workloads and working practices and were “driven out” of the department.
He took his case to the employment tribunal but eventually withdrew the case due to the seriousness of his mental health condition.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement last night (Wednesday): “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.”
DWP also said that it was legally required to provide information and cooperate with any investigation when requested by HSE.
HSE insisted that all its decisions are made independently.
Asked why it twice rejected the opportunity to investigate the allegations about the safety of the working environment on the first floor of the Oxford jobcentre when so many people were willing to provide evidence, 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.”
Jake told DNS this week: “What’s at the core of all the problems is the department’s absolute obsession with productivity stats: can local managers demonstrate to the regional managers how many claimants have been seen face-to-face, regardless of how successful or supportive the engagement was.
“Truly meaningful metrics were not tracked or analysed.
“They don’t see claimants as people, they are literally seen as statistics. Claimants are regarded and managed as commodities.”
*Not his real name. He has asked for his name not to be used, although both DWP and HSE are aware of his identity
Picture: Jake Baker in an accident and emergency department bed earlier this year
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