Agony uncle

Agony Uncle, meet Agony Uncle. New Internationalist’s very own ponderer of ethical dilemmas has passed the baton on to someone new – but the column will continue to help you to find answers in our troubled times.
Illustration: Emma Peer

I work for a charity supporting care leavers, something I’ve been doing for the past nine years. Parts I love – particularly when you see you’re really making a difference to a service user. But the working conditions have ground me down.

There is a culture of bullying, and pressure to reduce our time with clients. Pay has been squeezed. Meanwhile the CEO is known to have a six-figure salary and occasionally turns up to work in his Ferrari – which grates. I want to leave, for my mental health – but I don’t want to let down service users, some of whom I’ve built longer term relationships with. What should I do?

You have spent nine years doing a lot of good for people our society routinely fails. Now you’ve run out of patience with your working conditions. Whatever you decide next, first commend yourself for your efforts.

If things were different, it sounds like you would stay. It is just that others, through a culture of bullying and stress, have forced you to a place where that seems hard to stomach.

It’s understandable that you are particularly worried about leaving service users behind. But remember you are not supposed to be around forever. People go on holidays, have sick days and parental leave, and eventually move on or retire. A well-run organization will manage this professionally – and never leave you feeling like people’s fate is on your shoulders alone.

These anxieties may feel like your guilty conscience eating away at you. I wonder if they are also the product of systemic mismanagement. You are going to leave: the question is when, and why.

You are not alone in these difficulties. In 2019, a union survey of members working in charitable organizations showed while over 90 per cent of respondents believed in their work, 42 per cent said it was harming their mental health. In the UK, charity workers earn on average 7 per cent less than non-charity sectors.

Charity bosses, who often play up their ‘progressive’ credentials, will be quick to remind you that this is just the way it is. Funders like to see lean budget sheets, and every penny to you is a penny away from the service user.

Of course, that isn’t really true... after all, it has never stood in the way of great pay for the CEOs. And when frontline workers like you are underpaid, tired out, and poorly managed, I bet your service users notice the difference too.

I suspect you have already thought about whether you could improve your lot through a trade union. Unionization is no magic fix, plus in the third sector industrial disputes are rare and you may have to build support from the ground up. But things are changing. Workers at homelessness charity Shelter took successful strike action over pay in 2022, and those at another large homelessness organization, St. Mungo’s, have voted to follow suit.

Perhaps the bullying culture in your office makes you feel a dispute would be too much to handle, or the workplace seems too small. But that’s the nature of many workplaces, and needn’t stand in the way of a decent result.

I’d suggest you start with a chat. Speak with a few trusted colleagues, and then to a union representative, to see if others are feeling like you and what can be done. It will take time. Even if nothing comes of it, you could leave knowing you tried everything you could. After all, your working conditions are your service users’ living conditions. As the late trade union leader Bob Crow put it, if you fight, you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight, you will always lose.

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