Survival tactics for reps

Here's some advice based on the UK national work-stress network guidance on preventing stress and burn-out while representing members.

Many trade union members place high expectations and demands on their local representatives, believing them to be capable of delivering all that they want and in their preferred time frame. 

Trade union and safety representatives are also being placed much more under the microscope by their employers. Some in government would like to see trade union facilities time removed or much reduced.

All of these pressures and reps’ own desire to help members in need, have the potential to trigger high stress levels for elected lay representatives.

Trade union lay officers are not paid for the work they carry out for members. They deserve to be recognised for their excellent contribution to protecting workplace rights and standards, but at the same time members, employers and colleagues must recognise that they are entitled to a life of their own.

Lay reps can help to manage their own workload and health by following the advice given below.

Keep control of communications with members

Mobile phones

  • If possible, have or keep a separate mobile phone for union work.

  • Set specific times when members can contact you and make these clear to members.
  • If you have a separate phone for union work, switch it off in the evenings, at weekends and when you are not available.
  • Keep your voicemail up-to-date.


  • Do not use your personal domestic email for trade union work.
  • Consider setting up a separate account with PCS in the title.
  • Make sure that your use of work email systems complies with your facilities agreement and organisational rules.
  • Do not use facebook or twitter for individual communications.
  • Use out of office messages, and be clear about your availability.

Set clear boundaries

  • Members will benefit from you being clear about when you can be contacted and when you will respond.

  • Be clear and publicise the times when you are available in your workplace.
  • Consider holding regular surgeries at pre-set times.
  • Consider using a statement that acts as a kind of “service level agreement” with members. This can include your volunteer status and role, contact arrangements, and the member’s responsibilities. Suggest that such a statement is consistently used within your branch and by colleagues.

Be realistic, don't promise what you cannot deliver

  • When members approach you for support and advice, it will often be at a crisis point.  They may be greatly stressed and want immediate confirmation that you will be able to resolve their problem for them. 

    Although sometimes difficult, it is better to be realistic than set up false expectations.  It is important to set the boundaries at this initial point that will allow you to act appropriately whilst protecting yourself from burn out.  However, it is likely that you will need to re-state the boundaries as the case progresses as the member may not fully understand what this means to begin with.

  • Be clear with the member that they continue to have a responsibility for their own case and that they cannot pass all of the onus for sorting it out on to you or other union colleagues. Be clear about what you will do and what you expect them to do.

Try to keep detached

No matter how distressing the case, you will be more effective if you resist an emotional response and do not become too closely involved.

This is often easier said than done. Your emotional commitment to employment representation is your motivation, but getting over-identified or emotional with a member will be counterproductive and is more likely to lead to an unsuccessful outcome.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support

  • You are not alone, so ask for support when you need it.
  • Talk to your branch or group about ways of providing support and set up systems such as buddying or mentoring that can help share the work and pressure.
  • Move the support issue up to senior placed reps and full time officials.

Be mindful of your own limits 

You will do yourself or your members no favours if you keep saying yes to new cases.  There is a limit to what you can take on. 

Whilst respecting the confidentiality of the cases, discuss the general situation with your union colleagues, people at home, and if appropriate your employer and identify what help they can give you. 

Decide what is achievable and draw up a plan for managing and balancing your trade union work and your other commitments.

UK National Work Stress Network

Read more on their website or follow them on Twitter @workstressuk 

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