I am aware that several forces are reviewing, revising or writing afresh their internal policies on mental ill-health for staff. Policies about a force’s duty of care towards their police officers and employees. There are various reasons why this is very, very necessary and arguably overdue. Like any organisation, the police service will have staff who suffer from stress and anxiety related conditions because of issues at work; and others arising from personal and medical history. There will be a minority of staff who also have severe and enduring mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, etc..
I am aware from queries over the years that serving officers have been detained by their colleagues under s136 of the Mental Health Act and some police officers have been detained as inpatients in hospitals under the Mental Health Act. This happens to some members of our general population, including doctors, soldiers, academics – why should we think it wouldn’t happen to some of our police officers and staff?
This is a short post, just to throw around some thoughts that indicate why all senior officers need to consider their policies and approach to staff mental health as well as all of us reflecting again on our attitudes which are reflected in some presumptions –
- There is a raised risk of mental health disorders within the policing professions – potentially arising from the nature of the work that we do. Despite this, some forces are having to restrict the amount of occupational health support that they can provide, by restricting counselling to those whose mental health problems arise directly from issues at work.
- We are currently living in a period of economic austerity – in the second year of a pay freeze which will effectively continue for several years yet as pay and conditions are reformed – the Police Federation will state that they are dealing with more and more officers who are getting into financial difficulties and seeking support for debt management and for issues like family breakdown arising from financial problems.
- We have seen presumptions by the NHS – that because police officers work in a large organisation with occupational health and counselling support, that less NHS input is needed where there is a diagnosed condition. Without liaison between the NHS and the police to ensure that this is the case, some officers have fallen in the gaps.
- We have no specific national charity who champions the mental health issues of our police or our 999 services – there is no equivalent of Combat Stress or Blue Apple Heroes and I know some “999 demand” has drifted their way, in lieu of people or families knowing where to turn. I know our ambulance service face similar problems for similar reasons.
- Raised risks overall because the demographic profile of the service – men are less likely to seek help for mental health problems and yet are at far greater risk of committing suicide in age groups which are relevant to policing, like men in their 30s / early 40s.
- The impact upon people of organisational change programmes – we know that every force is looking at its budget and its service. As things are rationalised, we see job cuts, pay-regrading for police staff and in some cases, discussion about redundancy including compulsory redundancy.
- Some people are now responsible for things that used to be more than one person’s job – for example, in some police force areas, the “duty inspector” is responsible for a policing area that is literally twice the size of previous policing areas after boundaries were redrawn. Certainly what I will be doing this afternoon, used to be two people’s jobs.
- Training for first and second line supervisors – What training, if any, do sergeants / inspectors and equivalent police staff managers have on mental ill-health identification and support? I once heard a story that after a police officer was booked sick with a mental health condition, supervisors told colleagues not to make contact with them whilst off. This was done in good faith for good reasons, but it happened to be the opposite of what the person wanted and it left them feeling isolated.
- The culture of the police organisation – officers and police staff deal very frequently with calls from the public which involve mental ill-health: around 20% of demand, if not more, is connected to mental disorder. This tends to be the more acute crises, situations connected to crime and risk or situations where officers wonder about the care that was being offered, or denied, from the NHS. This colours officers’ attitudes at all levels, as can be reflected in some opinions and approaches to mental health work.
In other words: policing is a profession, especially at the moment, which is ripe for a combination of professional and personal factors which produces a higher than average likelihood that some staff will experience mental distress; just at a point where the organisation is less likely to be able to directly support and where supervisors may not necessarily feel confident in discussing it. All taken together, it has obvious potential to build towards stress, anxiety and interia that could become a mental health emergency somewhere down the line.
TIPS FOR FRONTLINE SUPERVISORS
Take time and trouble to offer to discuss concerns you may have if you believe staff may have a mental ill-health problem. Don’t be offended if someone chooses not to and be aware that there could be any number of legitimate reasons why they prefer not to discuss something with you – because you’re their boss. Be aware of internal support networks, staff associations, third sector providers as well as the ability of individuals to seek help from their GP who then has access to other NHS supports.
Don’t make presumptions about what staff may want – the person who told me their boss had told the team not contact had done something in good faith, presuming it would be preferred, that was the opposite of what they would have hoped for. A colleague ringing or texting, maybe meeting for a coffee would have been welcome, so be clear about what staff want and need. Remember that where someone has been diagnosed as having a mental disorder, it becomes covered by Disability discrimination legislation where staff are subsequently entitled to “reasonable adjustments” at work if this facilitates their return to work and the performance of duties.
Finally, it’s just a remark about attitudes and culture: I wondered aloud in a recent meeting about the extent to which our internal attitudes to staff mental health and wellbeing are affected by our professional experience of the jobs we’ve all dealt with, which are often very difficult or frustrating incidents where we see systemic problems in our societies response? I also wondered what rank in the police service would be the most senior at which someone could be found to say that they have suffered from mental health problems? If culture and attitudes are to change in a male-dominated organisation with a certain type of operating culture with a demographic and professional profile which places us at higher risk as a group, we could do with some role-models showing that successful careers are not derailed by ongoing battles with mental health problems and start breaking cultural barriers to addressing issues properly.
The two groups in our society whose attitudes have remained fairly entrenched about mental ill-health are the police and mental health professionals. This needs to change along with the rest of the society in which they operate.
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