The Westminster group pushing to improve staff working conditions
“We’ve been doing this in our bedrooms for two years,” says Estelle Warhurst, an executive member of the Wellness Working Group (WWG).
Westminster’s volunteer staff-led WWG was formed in 2019, after a chat in an Edinburgh café about the mental wellbeing of staff between caseworker Chloe McLellan and office manager Steph McTighe. Tom Fairweather, also an office manager, joined the group later. He had previously co-authored a paper on the value of staff after witnessing some trends between staff workloads, burnout and stress.
His passion for improving people’s mental wellbeing came from the personal experience of living with a long-term panic and anxiety disorder. “It was a coping mechanism for me, and I could take solace from helping others,” he says.
Warhurst, another office manager, joined after an online meeting during the pandemic recognised the difficult and unseen challenges of working for an MP. McTighe and McLellan would move on, but I recently joined the group: I am a trainee counsellor, and an office manager from Scotland.
The WWG has recently started to offer online talks from experts on mental wellbeing; one such talk presented the findings of “Cognitive Strain in Parliament”, co-authored with colleagues from the British Psychological Society. This introduced Dr Ashley Weinberg, a senior lecturer at Salford University and occupational psychologist, to the WWG. “I’ve been interested in wellbeing in politics for thirty years – starting out with surveys of MPs in the 1990s and early 2000s. I was interested in causes of psychological pressure of work, symptoms, improving working conditions and thereby how (well) democracy works,” he says.
For the WWG and Dr Weinberg, who offered his expertise pro-bono, the need for reportable data has become imperative. They have launched the first of two nationwide surveys recording the views of MPs’ staff on their roles, working conditions and support systems.
The findings revealed “key gaps in the type of human resource management those organisations outside Parliament take for granted,” Dr Weinberg says. It’s more than data: “people felt the questionnaire in front of them was something they trusted to be a space they could write the truth,” Fairweather says. This included confidential ethical guidelines: “The survey is anonymous, and we don’t get to see every qualitative comment,” says Warhurst.
WWG has recently gained momentum with support from the Speaker and partnerships with Chris Sear, Tara Cullen and other members of the Members’ Services Team, along with the IPSA Board.
The success of the WWG culminated in an invitation to give evidence to the 2022 Speaker’s Conference on two occasions. The group highlighted evidence of the need for parity between constituency- and parliamentary-based staff, accessible training, mental health, first aid, accurate and appropriate job descriptions, recruitment, induction, independent mediation where problems arise, accrual of employment rights, and being safe at work and not exposed to abuse.
The Speaker’s Conference report published in July accepted all recommendations of the WWG and passed on the floor of the House on 16 November. The relief felt was palpable: “it was like a door had swung open,” Warhurst says.
This stewardship isn’t taken for granted: “our members share information in the surveys, come to talks and trust us to make their voice heard,” she goes on. “It’s a fixable thing, as an MP you will feel supported, you are more likely to engage positively with constituents, you will have greater efficiencies of scale with a team that makes you more likely to be re-elected,” Fairweather concludes.
The WWG, volunteers, stewards and caring professionals who have a passion for politics are making a worldwide splash with innovative research and change that matters. Now that’s a Parliament I want to work in.
You can contact the WWG at email@example.com
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