Heathrow Stress Survey Analysis July 2016

Executive Summary 

The survey was carried out in response to our concern about the stressful working conditions at Heathrow airport in the early part of the summer 2016. This followed a prolonged period of high staff departure, budget restraint, increased passenger traffic and exceptionally intense Border pressures.

While resilience varies, almost all those who completed the survey confirmed that they had felt more stressed working at Heathrow in the past 6 months. Requests were received from non ISU members of staff to complete the survey suggesting that others wished to voice their own concerns about their working conditions.

The survey revealed an alarmingly high level of impairment of staff’s alertness and ability to do their job with full effectiveness. This should be a serious concern to senior management given the nature of the work being undertaken by the majority of those who completed the survey and the recent decision to make officers work their whole shift on the Primary Control Point. The impact on sleep patterns and general health was equally disturbing in particular with those regularly undertaking nightshifts and while there is some evidence available to us already of individuals being absent from work with work related stress, as we have no access to sickness data we do not know the current level of absence due to work related stress.

The survey demonstrated just how ineffective the Home Office policy on stress is at Heathrow. Very few stress risk assessments have been completed. Most respondents reported that they had not been directed towards the risk assessment process when reporting stress to their managers. Many were consequently unaware of the assessments, others felt there was little point in completing them as no effective action followed. The lack of action by Border Force Heathrow to acknowledge and address growing evidence of stress across the terminals’ workforce prompted us to launch the survey which has now provided actual data in support of our concerns. We hope Border Force Heathrow will now accept these, conduct meaningful enquiry of their own and deliver urgent welfare focussed interventions to mitigate adverse welfare outcomes created by the Heathrow working environment.

Data Gathering

The survey was circulated by email over a 3-week period.  Members had the option to return the survey either electronically or to return the survey in hard copy.  The survey opened on 20 July. No closing date was given but the majority of responses had been provided by the start of August and the analysis completed on 10 August.

The short time frame for completing the survey was due to the need to obtain reliable data quickly and it is unfortunate it coincided with high levels of leave.  The survey was not given support by Heathrow management and the lack of time for front line officers to read emails, far less respond to them, has resulted in some members informing us they were unable to fill out the survey while others were unaware it was being run.

Section A

Section A gathered demographic data.

Of the responses returned the majority, 78% were from the Officer grade, with 16% from the HO grade and 5% SO grades.

78% described their role as primarily PCP, 10% worked in resourcing, and 5% in Detection. No questions were asked regarding gender, ethnicity etc.


Section B 

Section B dealt with health impacts and asked respondents if work related issues had had an impact on a range of factors recognised by the HSE as being indicators of stress.

A striking 94% of respondents stated that work had an adverse impact on their general health and their sleep patterns in the past 12 months with an equal amount reporting how tired they were. These are very high figures, indicating requirement for urgent employer duty of care intervention to tackle the issue of stress to prevent further physical or psychiatric injury. An unhealthy, tired cohort of front-line staff cannot be expected to optimise delivery of Border Security imperatives.

Specifically, in this connection, our survey reported adverse impact on alertness – 84% of those who completed the survey reported that their alertness had been adversely affected. This very high figure should also be alarming for Heathrow management given the nature of the role of the majority of those completing the report – PCP officers – and the constant examination of IT records, passengers and documents for forgeries, imposters, victims of trafficking and CT profiles.

It is hardly a surprise that sleep deprivation and tiredness will affect levels of alertness.
Coupled with the practice at Heathrow of shift extensions, utilisation and 6 day working over recent months, the data outlines the staff welfare costs of working longer hours to cover for major staff shortages.

Mood was also reported as being an issue with lower mood having a negative impact on relationships and self- esteem. 68% reported that their domestic life and relationships had been adversely affected by their work in Border Force.

68% also reported an impact on their ability to rest and recuperate on their days off between shifts, with comment that split days off did not help the situation, nor the scheduling of a high number of night shifts. A firm commitment to scheduling consecutive rest days and a maximum run of nights is required to address the issue of tiredness, as well as a reduction in shift extensions.

Other comment surrounded coming into work in a state of fear, due to severity of anticipated pressures.

Section C

This section asked questions about the impact of stress. 94% of those who answered reported that they felt more stressed at work than previously.

94% felt that this stress impaired their ability to do their job. Text comments cited that their concentration levels were badly affected, especially due to the mundane nature of the work on the PCP and the lack of respite from PCP demands. Other comment was that there was too much information and change to take on board, the lack of scheduled time to read emails and operating instructions and keep on top of changes to the rules.

Comments about poor management capability and style were also expressed, with accounts of staff feeling that managers treat them ‘like a naughty child’, for example by being made to account for going to the toilet.

The recent AHW opt in had also played a part in the increase in stress with comment also made about lower take home pay and pension changes all of which have had a negative effect on mood and employee / employer relations.

Night shift workers expressed concern not only at the level of work they were being expected to do during their shift but also their reduced alertness in the middle of the night and the increased resentment and lack of tolerance the pressure they were working under was causing them.

42% of respondents reported they had been extended on shift which then led to an increase in their tiredness and loss of sleep impacting both rest time as well as ability.

Just 57% reported they had their line manager’s support. Optimally this would be higher. However, given the overall tone of responses to this survey, it is a positive that a small majority of staff felt there was some level of immediate support.

Quite alarmingly only 10% of respondents said they had a completed Stress Risk Assessment. Comment overwhelmingly was that managers do not use this essential tool when stress is reported. Indeed, many respondents were consequently unaware of them. There was also perception from others that it was pointless completing one as no action would be taken. Such a lack of awareness and faith in the system ought to be a concern and prompt urgent remedial action by management.

5% also expressed some worry about the impact of having a Stress Assessment on how their performance would be viewed and had therefore not completed one.

Similarly, only a small number, just 10% reported they had completed an Incident and Accident form to record the impact on their mental health as a result of an event or events at work.

Overwhelmingly the view was that as this was stress, completing a report was not appropriate as it was not viewed as an accident. Others though commented that the system for recording being electronic, was too time consuming and cumbersome. With pressures on staff time, accountability for not being on the PCP, and in some locations poor availability of working IT, access to the online reporting system is a significant issue for many operational staff and would explain under reporting.

Section D

This section was short and asked questions about staff well being at work. 68% of respondents said that they had come into work while feeling unwell and 89% reported that they had left work stressed in the past 6 months.

21% reported leaving work virtually every day in a state of stress, and one even reported leaving work with serious signs of a major physical illness.

Staff are being expected to work long hours under stressful conditions. One respondent reported that despite breaking down at work they had to go back out to deal with the queue half an hour later. Being required to suspend back office tasks or progressing detained passengers to work on the PCP to prevent queue breaches added enormous mental pressure on individuals.

Staff welfare has not been sufficiently promoted and the lack of support is a real concern to us. While additional resources are now being made available to Heathrow, the majority are inexperienced and require significant support. Established staff carry greater burden but their welfare does not seem adequately prioritised by managers as evidenced by the burden on night staff and lack of breaks for PCP night officers during a 15 hour shift.

Section E

This section asked questions about coping strategies. 42% reported that they had had to take medication in order to deal with stress. This is an extremely high proportion of respondents seeking medical intervention for work-related conditions. Comments also reflected an increase in infections such as colds. Heightened susceptibility to minor ailments is a known facet of stress related illness, however more worrying still were reports of physical symptoms that could if untreated or continue lead to major health problems such as stroke and heart attack.

This concern must be given adequate attention and needs to be met with supportive and not punitive response. It is highly notable that fear of Attendance Management repercussions was cited as reason for coming to work feeling unwell.

Another coping strategy reported was an increase in reliance on alcohol to cope with stressful working conditions. 16% of respondents said they used alcohol as their coping method.

A disturbing 73% reported that their mood had been negatively impacted by stress at work. Some commented that their change in mood had been noticed by close friends and family, others reported social withdrawal due to tiredness and low mood.

Increased aggression, lack of patience, intolerance and resentment were all recorded as changes in mood, none of which are desirable in a public facing role and where morale is already running low.

However, to credit and as further evidence of a committed workforce only 16% reported that they had phoned in sick due to work related issues. 5% though reported they had been medically diagnosed with physical damage due to work related stress and mid-term absence from work had resulted, however as stated before we are not party to current figures for absence due to stress across Heathrow the full picture remains unknown to us.

Comments by respondents

The survey closed with a free comments box inviting further explanation. The largest response here was by staff regularly undertaking night shifts who besides being regularly tired and lacking in social life, reported that they were working in immensely stressful environments and yet still had to take on additional cases or tasks that rolled over from earlier in the day or other parts of the business. This urgently needs to be acknowledged with a change in management perception that staff are idle and underemployed during the night just because there are no night flights at Heathrow.

In several parts of the business, staff shortages on nights are regularly being filled by staff who are already doing a significant amount of nights. The way in which night shortages are backfilled ought to be reviewed and greater management understanding of the potential pitfalls of this strategy both in the short and long term on operational staff.

The impact of dealing with queues of irate passengers late at night without sufficient staff available was also a concern for both officers and managers. We acknowledge this concern has been responded to since the launch of the survey, however reliance on rostering temporary and AHW staff to make up for the shortfall in staffing late evening creates issues of itself. Also of concern is whether there is adequate support for floor managers at this time of the day as the provision of extra resources has primarily been directed at the officer grade.

Comment was also made how the stressful working conditions had further weakened resilience to cope with outside stressful events such as bereavement.

Actions arising

The responses to this survey have been consistent in confirming serious issues with work related stress among staff at Heathrow. While we are pleased to see additional resources have now been provided to Heathrow and there is a recruitment campaign underway, there is no quick fix to the issues raised in this survey. Resources recently brought in to augment the presence on the front line are primarily inadequately trained staff who are unable to perform all the functions on the PCP and also unable to cover night shifts. These do not therefore alleviate burden on established staff to a significant degree. The busy student season is looming and with the ongoing high passenger loads and an attractive exchange rate, there is no indication that passenger volume will reduce anytime soon.

Despite repeatedly being raised by the ISU, there is still no acknowledgment by Border Force of the  impact on its staff’s own health and attendance by working in an operational environment. Even with staff shortages and poor working conditions, there is no leniency in the attendance management system to support front line staff absences resulting in a lot of the workforce attending work tired and stressed and many having warnings hanging over them with any subsequent absences being under the microscope for up to a further 9 months. We welcome a genuine commitment from management to accept their part in responsibility for the working conditions at Heathrow this summer, as evidenced by the Heathrow Leadership Team’s own repeated communications to staff about how challenging this summer has been, by instructing a greater discretion when absence triggers are reached due to work related stress.

Many staff are tired and reported their alertness and ability to carry out their job is impaired which we hope will be accepted and taken on board. Statements are repeatedly made that Border Security is not compromised but the data showing tiredness and impaired attention in front line staff surely challenges this assertion. The accrued month on month impact of working at limit cannot be ignored.

Aside the evidence of damage to health and an increase in tiredness, the harm still being done to staff morale and confidence in the employer and local management cannot be underestimated and disappointingly the most recent response to the ongoing deficit of staff has been to squeeze even more blood out of the workforce by instructing officers to sit and work their whole shift, i.e. 7-9 hours on the desk in often hot conditions with inadequate air conditioning.  This method has not been adequately planned, involved no consultation with us and does nothing to meet the level of welfare concerns reflected here.

The low rate of awareness of Stress Risk Assessments clearly demonstrates that not only is the Home Office policy on Stress unknown among staff and managers but a review of Heathrow’s own Health and Safety team and Wellbeing strategy is essential. Whether the lack of acknowledgment of stress at Heathrow has been deliberate, better resourcing is required for the Health & Safety infrastructure at Heathrow which has to accept some degree of responsibility for these shocking results. Not only is there a need for greater awareness of the signs of stress to be embedded among staff and managers and a proven strategy introduced, use of the Stress Risk Assessments ought to be encouraged through the briefing system and Heathrow communications and, given the appetite for assurance in other parts of the business, assured.

We also suggest a need to review arrangements for night workers in some parts of the business including a change of mindset among some managers about nightshifts, both in terms of the impact of working them as well as realistic productivity expectations. Current arrangements being put in place to increase staff attendance up to and beyond midnight are unpopular and a questionable response given the evidence of sleep deprivation and inability to recuperate.

While staff shortages have been the principle reason behind the majority of the stress, other issues such as poor morale, lower income and strained employee / employer relations need to be acknowledged and worked on. While there have been signs of genuine engagement now with the Director of Heathrow and those above him, there does need to be more evidence of commitment and good working practice further down the management chain.

There needs to be an honest acknowledgment of the growing traffic at Heathrow both in terms of passenger and commodities, and if there is any hope of attaining the Best Border Force in the World by 2020, then additional funding is required, not only to provide adequate staff but to equip them with the capability expected of them by 2020. Years of cuts and budget restraint and poor investment in training and IT, mean we cannot expect to secure adequate staff retention without adopting corrective measures.

Data from this survey ought to direct Border Force and more widely the Home Office to developing a method to accurately gather data on stress given the impact nowadays on businesses from absences due to stress. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that long term absence from stress is higher in the public sector and HSE statistics show that not only are females more likely to experience stress but absences due to stress are higher in the age group 34-54. Given the evidence of an ageing workforce in Border Force and the loss of so many graduates in the past year from Heathrow, it is disappointing given these statistics the lack of priority being afforded to reducing stress at Heathrow. There is an immediate need for professionally tackling the growing problem of stress at Heathrow rather than solely focusing on the planning and operational resourcing side, which might go some way to evidence a change in attitude towards people and that there is real substance to the oft voiced statement that staff are our greatest asset.

Caroline Wise

National Executive Committee and Chair Heathrow