A new survey of housing association workers has revealed an epidemic of work-related stress among staff who feel burned out, undervalued and poorly paid.
The survey commissioned by Unite of more than 300 housing association workers found that a strong majority, 62 per cent, reported that their pay had not kept up with the cost of living.
An astonishing 80 per cent said that they had experienced work-related stress in the past year, while nearly half – 44 per cent – said they believed their work was bad for their mental health. Almost just as many, 41 per cent, said they felt that they worked for a poorly managed organisation, while 42 per cent reported not feeling valued at work.
The publication of the Unite survey comes at a time of ongoing upheaval at housing associations. Unite housing workers branch chairman Paul Kershaw says bosses have ruthlessly pushed through cost-cutting measures at the expense of workers’ pay and conditions, despite organisations regularly booking record surpluses and margins.
Runaway executive pay
One of London’s largest housing associations, L & Q, for example, has seen their margins rise year on year. They posted a record surplus last year of nearly £350m. When their surplus fell this year to £190m – still a record-breaking bumper surplus – L & Q slashed staff bonuses against a backdrop of year-on-year pay freezes and paltry pay rises.
At the same time, executive pay has soared — L&Q CEO David Montague has seen his pay rise by a massive 74 per cent since 2010 to nearly £350,000.
Montague isn’t the only housing association chief executive who’s raking it in either — Peabody boss Brendan Sarsfield had an increase of 17 per cent bringing his pay to £278,750. David Cowans of the giant HA Places for People received a salary of £528,870 in 2018 — a rise of 9.8 per cent on the previous year.
“And the list goes on,” Kershaw said, adding that the widening gap between housing association bosses’ and ordinary workers’ pay is stoking anger among the workforce, some of whom are paid as little as £18,000 a year.
An investigation by Inside Housing found that low pay in the sector has fuelled housing problems among social housing workers themselves – some have even reported homelessness and rough sleeping. The majority of social housing workers spend more than a third of their income on rent alone, with nearly 1 in 10 spending more than half of their income just to keep a roof of their heads.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if many housing association workers themselves are in a position where they would struggle to afford housing association rents,” Kershaw said. “It is a sad indictment of the sector that staff are on the one hand trying to help people navigate the housing crisis but on the other hand are facing a housing crisis of their own.”
The squeeze on housing association staff pay and conditions has also happened at the same time as workloads have skyrocketed.
“Relentless cost cutting – or as management calls it ‘efficiency savings’ – means in practice having fewer people do more and more work for less pay,” Kershaw explained. “This has created the conditions for stress and mental ill health to fester in our workplaces.”
“And when changes are pushed through without consultation, as is often the case, this further fuels the sense of feeling undervalued and working for a mismanaged organisation,” he added. “Cost cutting also has a detrimental impact on housing association tenants and their local communities. You can’t provide a good service on the cheap.
“Many housing associations have sadly moved far away from their commitment to social housing – executives these days mostly come from a finance background and expect salaries in line with hedge fund managers. They care less and less for the people they are meant to serve and are more concerned about keeping lenders and investors happy.”
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean called the results of Unite’s housing association staff survey “profoundly disturbing”.
“The survey shows that members’ pay and conditions have not kept pace with the cost of living, while job insecurity, poor management and long hours are high on the list of concerns,” she said.
“It is clear workplace stress is at epidemic levels in housing associations and the working environment is damaging the mental wellbeing of staff,” she added as she highlighted that poor pay and working conditions often go hand-in-hand with anti-union employers.
On the other hand, Endean pointed out that staff reporting high levels of satisfaction at work was strongly correlated with working for a union-friendly organisation.
In response to the survey, Unite is now stepping up its efforts to ensure that its representatives have the tools to tackle stress and mental health problems in the workplace.
The union has produced guide for reps to help them challenge employers on workplace issues that cause mental health problems and stress. Reps are also being encouraged to sign up for mental health awareness training.
“It is imperative that senior management in housing associations takes a long hard look at their organisation and make dramatic changes to alleviate stress and mental health problems,” Endean noted.
She added that Unite is standing ready to take action against employers who fail to address low pay and poor working conditions.
“We will not allow members’ financial wellbeing to continue to be eroded,” she said.
“Unite will convert growing anger into a concerted fight if employers don’t become considerably more realistic over the next year,” he warned.
Find out the latest news on Unite’s housing workers by visiting their branch website here.