Managing Stress

A week in which we’re hearing a lot about stress, depression and anxiety in policing: firstly, a national broadsheet telling us the financial cost of almost 800 officers being off sick during a snapshot survey recently undertaken. (The true figure will be higher as only 35 of 43 police forces responded – the Telegraph speculated it would exceed 1,000.)

Then today, we learn that one police force in the North-East of England has seen days lost to mental health related conditions quadruple over the last three years. In some forces, 1.5% of the workforce is off sick with a mental health related condition.  All of this in a profession that tends to employ more men than women, at ages where men are at greater risk of suicide than at other times in their lives.

Most of us know someone who is off work with stress, depression or anxiety – or we are someone who has been off work with such conditions.  Of course, not all of that is because of policing.  I have supervised many people over the years who have been through difficult personal periods in their lives, coping with bereavement, divorce and financial problems. Officers who have had to endure serious illness, child access problems and other complex problems, including disciplinary investigations. So as with any profession or job: the police are made up of ordinary men and women doing a difficult job and it has its pressures, but they are also people with personal lives that give rise to stresses and pressures too.  Very obviously.


It would be easy to identify certain drivers for stress related conditions within policing and assert that all of these things taken together will, for some people, represent the requirement for a quite unsustainable level of effort: let’s start with an unprecedented period of change in both police service structure and in terms of officers pay and conditions – many officers are getting used to the fact that the timescales for their professional service and the point in their lives at which they may expect to retire whilst watching their pension contributions rise against a backdrop of stagnated wages. Add to that a period of internal change in which officers have seen restructures that have altered their role and their hours because Chief Constables have had to think of new ways to make their budgets and their resources match the (rising) demands on the police – sSome officers have been taken from centralised, specialist departments and redeployed to frontline response or neighbourhood policing teams.  And finally, all of this against the background of a quite extraordinary set of duties and responsibilities – police officers deal constantly with nNegativity, tragedy and pressure – critical incidents, involving death and serious injury as well as a constant volume of drug and alcohol related crime and disorder.  Being abused by a significant proportion of those who are arrested, going to work most days preparing for a fight – many of these things change people’s personality over the years they spend doing the job.

And of course – it would be easy to point to all of this and observe that the police are far from unique in these kinds of changes:  not in the public or private sector.  It is also easy to point out that many people have faced far worse in the form of wage reductions, redundancy and job relocations.  But this is the thing about stress related conditions and mental health problems generally: what affects one person and becomes clinically significant for one person, may not do so for another. To point out that someone else has “coped with worse” is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of mental distress.  As Stephen FRY once remarked by way of example, asking why a famous person has become clinically depressed (with all their access to money, travel and career) is like asking a painter why he got cancer when someone else smoking and drinking a similar amount didn’t.

It’s just not how distress happens and no two situations or people are the same.

But there is one unique aspect to policing that is often overlooked.  I go back to the MSc I took about ten years ago when I first realised this point.  During a lecture by an academic who had a specialist research interest in what is known as “private policing”, the point was being attempted that there was nothing particular unique about policing. Private companies and other public institutions could and did undertake policing functions to prevent, reduce and investigate crime. Whether it ranges from private citizens in wealthy areas of London employing a security company to patrol their neighbourhood, or NHS professionals investigating certain kinds of crime – there were numerous examples to show that policing is not unique. Right?

Wrong – the unique difference is that officers are obligated – and it seemed to come as a shock to him to contemplate it.  To perform certain duties, at certain times and this can include short-notice obligation to work in another part of the country and there is a weight of law behind such instructions.  I have worn riot gear on the streets of Birmingham and Bristol in recent years – I have lived in London for a week and sat in the woods near High Wycombe overnight for 15hrs at a time.  Not of this fitted in particularly easily with my childcare responsibilities for a little boy who didn’t understand why Dad isn’t coming home.  And in some of those circumstances, to have said “No!” and gone home on time would have been a criminal offence.  That is the difference in duty.  If your private security company forget or fail to patrol your area, you may have a breach of contract, but that’s about it.


We have known for a while that police officers have always operated at raised risk of suffering from clinically significant stress, depression and anxiety – part of which, in my humble opinion, because the command and control imperative to deliver outcomes within a framework of a highly discretionary profession.  Research in Australia at Monash University made passing reference during a study on stress, depression and anxiety in mental health nursing that police officers (like paramedics) are four times more likely to suffer from these conditions than the general population of the same age.  When we also remember how police officers are a higher-risk group for suicide than the population as a whole and that the profession is predominantly male, we start to see the problems.

So all things taken together, I wondered aloud when I read the “almost 800” figure that “I’m surprised it’s that low.”  In a sense, it makes me think that police officers are quite a resilient bunch overall OR it makes me think that many more officers will be operating near their psychological limits in an organisation where they prefer not to reveal ongoing mental health problems – I suspect a bit of both.  Any officer worth their salt will be quite unsurprised to learn that a colleague is suffering from a clinically significant condition – most of us can name highly effective officers who have been off work and some of us know officers who became so unwell that they needed a period of recovery in hospital, detained under the Mental Health Act.  I’m not sure it has occured to some members of the public, but there are some officers in receipt of ongoing psychiatric care who have previously been detained.  I’m referring to highly effective officers who I would be delighted to see policing events involving my family and there should be absolutely no surprise that this is the case.

I keep remembering that 1 in 4 figure that we hear from major mental health charities: that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a  mental health problem during our lifetime.  I also keep remembering that police officers are four times more likely than the population to suffer from mental health condition, especially stress, depression and anxiety and I do the maths that my nine-year old could do — whether because of the job itself, the impact of policing upon people’s general health and wellbeing or because of the difficulties in assimilating that into a family life, to choose a policing career is for many, to choose a life with significantly worse health outcomes than may otherwise be the case.  It there gives rise to something of a covenant between the public and the police service – as there is between the public and the military – that the requisite support will be there for police officer who struggle psychologically and mentally in fulfilling what is required of them.  I have heard it said more than once, “All I wanted and needed, was some support.”  Quite so.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.


One thought on “Managing Stress

  1. Thanks for an insightful blog. This resonates with me, as it will for others who have served their communities and dealt with the myriad of incidents we face daily. It’s very hard to say out loud because of the stigma attached and much more discussion is needed. Ultimately we should all show more kindness to those we meet as you never know what that persons individual struggle/background/difficulties might be. Thanks Michael.

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