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How MPs can preserve their wellbeing under the stress of Brexit

01 May 2019

A psychologist who has conducted a 20-year study of MPs is urging those who are stressed by Brexit to look after their wellbeing to help maintain clear thinking.

Professor Richard Kwiatkowski from Cranfield University is presenting his findings to the annual conference of the British Psychological Society today.

He says MPs should:

  • Acknowledge the stress they are under and the reality of current threats to their personal identity and safety. They should seek social support from their family and friends (including but not limited to MPs) and ask for professional help if they need it.
  • Ensure a balance of activities and not devalue routine work, such as helping constituents, committee work and APGs.
  • Remember that they are critical to democracy and recognise that it is their duty to maintain their own optimal functioning as stress impacts clear thinking. They should consider if the culture and mode of working of parliament is conducive to good health and clear thinking.

His paper is based on in-depth interviews with MPs conducted before and after the Brexit referendum in 2016. As it is part of a 20-year study, he is able to make comparisons with other times of crisis for parliamentarians such as the Iraq War, the Syria Vote, and the expenses scandal, as well as the threat of losing office.

He describes how MPs voted in 2016, their anxieties about the result, their reactions after it and the impact on their thinking and effectiveness.

Professor Kwiatkowski found that as the referendum got closer there was increasing anxiety from pro-Remain MPs. They were beginning to notice on the doorstep that, despite what the polls said, opinion was shifting. By contrast, those who were pro-Brexit remained more relaxed, especially if their constituents were also pro-Brexit. 

The unexpected result, coupled with the horrific murder of Jo Cox MP, ‘one of their own’, caused shock and confusion. In the aftermath, as with other collectively challenging events, MPS found day-to-day functioning - in a complex and demanding institution – understandably difficult.

Professor Kwiatkowski said:

“The well-being of MPs is crucial for all of us. They have to be able to make good decisions on difficult matters on our behalf.  The strain, pressure, publicity, threats, anxiety, long hours, fatigue and risk to one’s self-image conspire to make the job a difficult and often thankless one. 

Though it may be an unpopular thing to say, MPs need to look after themselves. Their physical and mental state has a significant impact. High levels of stress have a negative impact on clarity of thought, and at the moment we need our MPs to think clearly. Addressing these issues directly can help MPs – and anyone who is suffering serious stress at work.”

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