Blog: Police officers can only take so much
13 February 2019
Vice-Chair, Ché Donald
As we launch our survey findings on officer demand, capacity and welfare, Vice-Chair Ché Donald talks about the real impact of pressures of the job.
This bespoke police officer survey was run for the second time in 2018 (some would argue the Durham University survey is similar) and the results speak for themselves - there is very little improvement since 2016 and sadly most issues give greater cause for concern. More demand and fewer officers to deal is having a hugely negative impact on health, wellbeing and productivity. But, let’s face it, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work that out.
There is some good news though, a higher proportion of officers (over double!) reported that talking about mental health and wellbeing is encouraged by the police service – there is a way to go but as the results stand this is a huge positive.
There is also an improvement in officer awareness in regard to the mental health and wellbeing support services offered by their force, and line managers continue to feel confident in supporting officers suffering with mental health concerns.
So, this goes some way in tackling the stigma which still exists around mental health in the workplace, but we are not quite there yet. We know that the only way to address stigma is through cultural change, and culture has got to change at the top and at the bottom. The top have to make a concerted effort to bring about changes that make it a more conducive environment to talk about it, deal with it when it arises, while ensure there are procedures in place which are people-centred not process driven. There’s also a degree of responsibility for the officers themselves - they’ve got to make a concerted effort to look after their own physical and mental health. What we can’t have is officers pushing themselves beyond breaking point, to the detriment of their own physical and mental wellbeing. Better for everyone, and importantly officers themselves, is to take action early on, to allow for support measures to be put in place and avoid the additional stress of having to go long-term sick.
All too often officers put themselves under additional pressure by thinking that the situation they find themselves in is in some way down to their own making, it’s not. The situation we find ourselves in, where the impact is on officer welfare has everything to do with them working in a high pressure environment with insufficient resources, insufficient funding, and that includes pay! This is leading to a demotivated and alienated workforce and a distinct inability to perform their role to a standard to which they can be proud of – add to that the fact that there is no decompression within the job these days. Demands are so pressing that officers are literally chasing their tails, going from job to job. How can that be a healthy and productive work environment? An officer retired through ill-health (because of these pressures) summed it up perfectly, ‘it’s like flogging a willing horse’.
Different to the last (and first) demand, capacity and welfare survey – we included questions on trauma exposure. We all know anecdotally that the job carries risk of trauma exposure for every officer but we wanted to quantify that. So for the first time we are able to evidence how often officers are repeatedly exposed to trauma - the toll that is going to take on mental health and wellbeing is going to be phenomenal, not to mention the other pressures that I’ve already spoken about.
Really it is no surprise that we are faced with a dire picture of working conditions for our police officers. If there isn’t significant investment put into policing now, and that’s not just in monetary terms or additional resources – I am also talking about wider support in terms of occupational health, officers will end up being no use to anyone, let alone themselves or to the public.
This isn’t about providing a quick fix of a gold-plated occupational health service, because if you don’t address the causes, you will just have a steady stream of officers trying to access occupational health. It is about seeing the problem, the symptoms and bringing about real change to address it.
Some of that change is taking place through the development of the National Wellbeing Service, and the work being undertake through Oscar Kilo. But nothing is free - everything costs money, and policing today needs investment now or it simply has no future.
The extensive work carried out by the Federation around demand, capacity and welfare has so far resulted in some major policing stakeholders engaging with us to start to improve the lives of officers - so we are taking this issue very seriously on a national level - it is at the forefront of everything we are doing in the Federation, to improve the working conditions of our police officers.
One such example is how we can build on the successes of our Welfare Support Programme.
Police officers are human beings - they can only absorb so much before they become overloaded and break. We are sitting on a ticking time bomb and its time the police service starts delivering upon real change, showing officers just how much we value them and care about their mental health and wellbeing.