MPs and stress: A view from the boundary

It is not surprising that the proposed changes to electoral boundaries have featured prominently in MPs’ thoughts and feelings. The sense of insecurity which stems from being told one’s job conditions are set to change is not uncommon in this economic climate, yet it is often suggested that politicians are sufficiently robust to withstand such challenges.

However, 20 years of research into the psychological health of UK MPs has shown that this is just as pertinent an issue for them as it is for other occupational groups.

Given the nature of a representative democracy, perhaps this is as it should be. But the salience of politicians’ decisions means it is also important to assess their functioning for the sake of those affected by their performance as well as for their own well-being.

Research into national politicians is explored in a new book, The Psychology of Politicians, which draws on evidence from five European countries including the UK. It tracks politicians from candidate selection to developing leadership capabilities.

The functioning of national politicians in the job is scrutinised, examining their acclimatization to Parliament, as well as their communication skills and cognitive abilities. Sources of pressure inside and outside work are evaluated, alongside the personality traits and values of politicians and those who elect them, shedding light on what voters are seeking and what they can expect to find.

The first psychological studies of UK MPs in the early 1990s showed that one third reported raised levels of stress, encompassing sleep difficulties, eating, drinking and smoking more than usual, headaches and excessive tiredness. Perhaps this was not too surprising as 81 per cent  of a sample of 124 MPs reported working over 55 hours each week (including 41 per cent working over 70 hours per week).

Furthermore the findings revealed difficulties experienced by MPs at the boundary between home and work lives: "Being an MP is a way of life," remarked one, while others were clearly affected to the point of alienation from their families. One of the main predictors of psychological strain among new MPs in 1997 was the level of adaptation of their family to the job and this is likely to resonate with a proportion of members joining Parliament in 2010. In the 1992 survey, three-quarters of MPs had reported they did not spend enough time with their partners and in 2009 the same proportion reported the strain on family relationships caused by work!

In the early 1990s, the Jopling Report argued for more predictable and less antisocial hours, however limited reforms could not stop increases in stress levels and pressures at the interface between home and work, at a time when debates continued to run late into the night.   Earlier start times for debates were trialled in 2003-4, yet curiously these sensible-sounding changes produced a polarising effect among a representative cohort of 64 MPs. Those with constituencies within easy commuting distance of London saw positive changes in their work-life balance, whereas for MPs whose families were farther afield, the reverse was the case, with additional negative impacts on constituency duties and effectiveness in the job.

The ensuing Commons vote led to compromise over debate timings. Naturally the electorate is less concerned with whether or not MPs enjoy an optimum working life, but where changes to working practices have an impact on MPs’ performance, this carries a wider significance for all.  

Whilst House of Commons reform illustrates the potential pitfalls of planned change, the 2009 expenses crisis demonstrated the profound psychological impact of unexpected and unwelcome events. Many are surprised to learn that MPs perceive lower levels of control at work than the general working population, yet the proliferation of workload, competing interests, organisational factors, split home and work lives all help to explain this.

The expenses affair compounded this phenomenon and this was reflected in the finding that 77 per cent of the participants from the above study reported the negative impact of the expenses matter on their view of the job, while 91 per cent felt it had harmed their perspective of the House of Commons. Almost half agreed the issue had negatively impacted on their families - one fifth reported deteriorations in health and almost one third recognised it had affected their job performance. The proportion of MPs reporting high levels of psychological strain after the expenses crisis doubled to almost 40 per cent.

Of course it is not only in research into politicians that perceptions of control are considered important. This is the daily experience of all employees, and in studies of workplace change where workers are consulted about, and can contribute to change, incidences of ill health including coronary heart disease and depression are halved.

Despite this many organisations fear that involving the workforce in the change process is a gamble, when actually their engagement is absolutely necessary for positive outcomes!  It is hoped that the latest proposed changes to MPs’ work via boundary changes involve meaningful consultation, thus providing an appropriate precedent for the rest of the country’s workplaces in such turbulent times.

Dr Ashley Weinberg is a chartered psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford and is editor of The Psychology of Politicians, published in December 2011 by the Cambridge University Press.