Working in a Hostile Environment

I was in a meeting recently with a staff member of a national newspaper, and one of the topics they mentioned was on the issue of working in a hostile environment.

As part of their job they had been sent into war zones and similar conflicts, so their HR people had sent them on a training course beforehand. It covered topics like first aid, flak jackets, tracking devices, and avoiding harm. There were policies such as checking in three times a day, and always sharing movements and plans.

Clearly their employer was being very responsible, and risk assessments were built into their work.

And it got me wondering.

We can easily understand that a war zone somewhere else in the world is dangerous. We might even think that sometimes there might be dangerous assignments closer to home, such as covering a large protest or investigating and tracking down violent criminals.

But what about people who work in social policy in the UK?

It has been government policy for at least ten years to create a hostile environment for many people. It has become structural. The experience of the Windrush generation of Black British people and the Home Office is one stark example. And the experience of disabled people at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is another. The experience of local authorities – councils – and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is yet another.

But how far have third sector employers in the UK in the field of social policy appreciated that their staff are working in a hostile environment? Just because bullets are not flying overhead there is a danger that the risk is being under-estimated. People are still dying, especially when even the meanest of benefits have been withdrawn.

Years and years of relentless hostility will always cause their own damage, harm and trauma. It has been known for a long time that a key stress factor at work is the lack of control that anyone might have over their daily work. Build up that pressure over years and years, cuts upon cuts, and then add hostile policies and demeaning comments by national politicians (such as scroungers, work-shy, benefit cheats) – it all piles up.

A journalist would not be left in a war zone for a decade by their employer without a break. After a decade of cuts and hostilities in the UK I wonder if some third sector employers need to look again at the appalling external and policy environments their own staff have endured, to consider what more can be done to provide at least some of the much-needed respite and relief. Even without new money, though so very much needed, I believe there are still many non-financial improvements and reliefs that could be started or extended.

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