I am hearing a lot of discussion at the moment about stress in the police. With regard to policing, we know that various things are contributing to potential pressures upon officers: a pay freeze along with the rest of the public sector, a review into pay and conditions, recently increased pension contributions, the extra workload that comes with policing a certain sports festival in London and the amplification of the impact of all of that, by recently having to back-fill gaps in private sector security provision along with our colleagues in the Armed Forces. We also know that policing is facing reform and that some officers have very strong views on it. I make no remark about the politics of all that, except to say they amount to stressors, for some.
I must be clear here: I am not referring to that sensation most of us have from time to time, of feeling that we could just do with a good break from it all. I am referring to stress and anxiety becoming clinical issues that begin to affect people’s health and then their lives. We know that stress and mental health problems have overtaken physical healthcare issues as a reason for time off work and within just my own sphere of knowledge, I am aware of officers also currently coping with bereavement, financial difficulties because of frozen pay, divorce, parenting difficulties and combinations of all of the above. Whilst those issues are not exclusive to policing, add those to police officers’ professionals demands to alter the time you have to start and finish work and / or the location in which you must work, we can see how things build up.
A distinguishing feature of policing (and Armed Service) that stands out for me from all other professions is that of compellability. Police officers and armed forces’ personnel can be compelled by law to undertake duty – in other areas of the UK, including extended duty; AND at short or no notice in circumstances where employees cannot. This clearly has the potential to impact upon people negatively.
I remember when I did my MSc in Criminology some years ago, an academic was interested in the concept of ‘private policing’ – in other words, policing-type services, provided for money by private sector organisations. He was attempting to suggest that it was little different to ‘public’ policing and was making various political points about economics and purchase-power. His lecture involved him ‘board-blasting’ some important words about what constituted the essence of policing in an attempt to show that private policing was no different to the public variety. He got students to shout out many of these words and when he reached the point where he was asking if there were any final additions I said, “Compellability”. I had to go on to explain that my boss can order me not to go home and can cancel my rest days at zero notice and can order me to the other end of the UK, should the need arise and the personal or financial implications of this are for me to manage. He had no idea of this, bless him.
I would like to argue that it is this feature of service – the compellability – combined with normal life on earth, that has the potential to contribute to the development of stress and anxiety related disorders because sometimes, something has got to give. For some, it will be their health, even if they are actively trying to look after it.
I am recently aware of an officer who was ordered to take two days off because of their manager’s concerns. In fairness, they hadn’t had a day off in over a month. As I am one of my force’s ‘Bronze’ public order commanders, I had to work in that capacity on (another) of my rest days last weekend: a force operation which was nothing to do with my ‘day job’. When I rang my boss on Friday morning to explain I’d been asked to deploy to this and would be working long days for the foreseeable future, he actually took the time to check whether I wanted Monday off to balance the impact – nice touch.
Some officers deployed to London at the moment are there for several weeks and I know that many of those officers have got young families at home and they are married to full-time serving police officers who are also facing alterations and challenges to their duties. Quite frankly, if it were not for my son’s grandparents and his aunt and uncle; as well as the parents of some of his friends who know the bind we’re in over the summer without an ability to take leave – I haven’t got the faintest idea how my wife and I would make it to September without committing child neglect OR neglect of duty. Because of our support structure, we’re planning furiously week by week, but we know we’ll be OK. I can see very easily how everything I’ve written about above, can compound for some into more serious problems, leading to mental health problems.
The question is then: what support is there for officers facing such difficulties. I have written before about police support to those who deal with critical incidents or suffer life altering injuries in the course of their duty – for example, PC David RATHBAND. There is mixed feedback from officers about the support they received whilst suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but this can include police rehabilitation centres like Flint House, in Goring-on-Thames. There are others.
I know, even outside of these extraordinary times, of officers who were ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act, because of clinical conditions that necessitated assessment or treatment in hospital. We know the police officers have higher than average suicide rates and higher than average PTSD diagnosis rates. The support for stress, depression or anxiety disorders that have built up, accumulating over time is more difficult to define: obviously NHS systems exist for everyone and GPs manage about 83% of all the people who suffer from mental health problems. Many GPs are excellent and officers would do well to remember that their GP can provide support, advice and signposting to appropriate services for these kinds of conditions – all confidential to the officer. Also, most forces occupational health departments have the ability to support or signpost officers and these can be considered also.
Forces but also individual line managers in policing, must ensure they are aware of their officers’ mental health this summer. I know we’ve got an Olympics to police; and that we are where we are with pay and conditions and with police reform etc., but actually a conversation or phone call from a boss can go a long way to mitigating impacts upon some. My boss’s first response was not about me having to work three very long days at short notice on a force job – it was one about my welfare and not the Monday morning meeting for my day job that my very capable sergeants can cover. Not feeling like a number matters to most cops, so actually we need to make sure we’re all supporting each other in these extraordinary times.
Along with thousands of others, I’ll be deployed away from home this summer – the first time in my life I’ve spent this amount of time away from my son. Although he loves having a cop for a Dad, he’s not too chuffed about it. So please spare a thought for the officers and armed forces doing this and more as they rise to the challenge of facilitating this major international event – and if you are a police officer, look out for your mates as some of them are working under pressures we can’t see.