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MPs’ staff are suffering from growing levels of serious psychological distress amid heightened tensions over the war in the Middle East, a survey has found.

Nearly half of the 3,700 workers employed by MPs experienced clinical stress similar to emergency service workers last year, the findings suggest.

One in five said they feared for their own and colleagues’ safety, prompting calls for a new whistleblower-style hotline for workers to raise concerns.

The survey of 357 members of MPs’ staff, the largest of its kind, was carried out before the heightened tensions in Westminster over the Israel-Gaza war, which many say has added to their fears.

Concerns over the safety of parliamentarians ramped up last month after the controversy over the handling of the Gaza ceasefire votes by the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle .

Hoyle broke parliamentary protocol to allow three separate votes on a ceasefire in Gaza, to the ire of the Scottish National party and the Conservatives. An emotional speaker later told MPs he had taken his decision, which allowed Labour to dodge a difficult vote, because he was fearful of MPs’ safety.

Several members of MPs’ staff told the Guardian the episode had “put a target on our back” and led to them being accused of “subverting democracy” because Hoyle breached parliamentary protocol over the debate.

One said they felt the concern over the protests had been “politicised” and that the primary fear was the “widespread bullying and harassment of junior staff” by MPs and other senior colleagues.

They added: “There is definitely a huge level of fear around the aftermath of what happened to Jo Cox and David Amess and the comments [by Tory donor Frank Hester] about Diane Abbott being shot.”

Cox died after being shot and stabbed in 2016 and Amess was fatally stabbed in 2021.

“All of that is really scary because you’re public-facing, and you’re sometimes having to vet people before they get to the MP – that adds a level of fear.”

The survey found that 46% of staff met the medical threshold for psychological distress – more than twice the level in the general population.

This is up from 42% in 2022, reflecting the increased pressure last year amid the fallout of global conflicts including in Gaza and Ukraine.

It had fallen from 49.8% in 2021 when MPs were flooded with concerns from the public about the end of Covid-19 support measures such as furlough.

Nearly half said they frequently or always hid the nature of their work from others because they expected a negative reaction.

One said they were questioned about the state of the NHS by a nurse “as I was going in for an operation” after disclosing their job in politics.

The MPs’ staff working wellness group, which commissioned the survey, called for a new whistleblower-style hotline for workers to be able to use.

They said the safety of staff was a “major area of concern, particularly so in recent years” and that those based in constituency offices felt more at risk than those in Westminster.

It said it was “astounded” that nearly one in 10 constituency office workers said their MP or office manager had rejected measures that would improve the safety of their workplace.

The survey also highlighted anxiety over the looming general election, with more than half saying they felt it would negatively impact their job, and 48% feeling unprepared to seek a new role.

Employees outside Whitehall said they were treated like “slack-jawed yokels” and “second-class citizens” by the parliamentary establishment, often working in unpleasant offices.

One said: “Our constituency office is awful – there’s damp, mould, the toilet and kitchen are so old and don’t work properly, the heating is awful, there’s no real natural light. The carpets are filthy and the whole things needs a proper renovation.

“The building is owned by a property company from the local political party so we have no say in how it’s kept. All requests for modernisation, cleaning and decoration are rejected.”

A House of Commons spokesperson said its Members Services’ Team had a confidential hotline for pastoral care and other support.

The spokesperson said that the ability parliamentary workers to carry out their duties safely was “fundamental to our democracy”, and added: “MPs’ staff are a highly valued and integral part of the parliamentary community, and whilst the report demonstrates that progress is being made – commending the work of the House Administration’s Members’ Services Team in particular – more work must be done to ensure the working lives of MPs’ staff can be improved in the long term.”

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