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Officers are victims of their own dedication

To mark national Mental Health Awareness Week, Police Superintendents' Association President Paul Griffiths talks about the serious issues facing the police service
Published - 13/05/2019 By - Paul Griffiths, PSA President

Despite the regular attention given to mental health through national campaigns such as this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week, it seems this area of wellbeing continues to be something of a taboo, especially amongst the UK’s workforce.

Policing is a vocation that comes with a great deal of pressure, challenge and stress. This is something that everyone joining the service is aware of, but that no one can be fully prepared for.  

I serve as a trustee for the charity Police Care UK and we supported the recent study into the mental health of police officers. It showed that as many as one in five police officers are suffering from a form of PTSD.

The effect of dealing with despair, distress, fear and grief witnessed by colleagues on the frontline, through to the extreme workloads and the pressure for our ranks, can all have a lasting psychological impact.

As an association, we have recognised the serious nature of the mental health issues facing our members and their colleagues for years, and back in 2016 we carried out a survey to try and understand the resilience of our members and the realities of day to day life as a superintendent.

The results were shocking, but sadly, not surprising.  Our figures showed that:

  • 50 per cent had signs of suffering with anxiety
  • 27 per cent experienced symptoms of depression
  • 75 per cent were working more than 50 hours per week

These statistics are extremely worrying and have been at the heart of work undertaken by the association to further understand the issues, and to work with the NPCC to bring better oversight to the working week undertaken by senior leaders.

Psychological illness, which half of our members surveyed were experiencing, is a disability.  An invisible disability, but one with serious effects. A huge number of people live with the effects of mental ill health, but police officers are not openly talking about this or asking for help. 

Of the 1285 members of the Police Superintendents’ Association, only 18 have described themselves as having a disability.  This is a huge contrast to our survey results and raises broader issues on the work needed to support employees in declaring any disability, so that help can be provided.

Policing is not unique in this concerning trend.  A survey of 2,000 UK workers carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in 2017 revealed that 38 per cent of British workers would not talk openly about a mental health problem for fear it would affect their job prospects or job security.

This aligns with our own survey which showed that 32 per cent would take rest days or leave to avoid calling in sick.

We have just completed a new survey of our members and are not confident that improvements will be found. We want our members, and the wider policing family, to be able to perform to the best of their abilities in the workplace, so we have undertaken a range of initiatives to achieve this. We are pushing to ensure that the hours worked by our members are regularly and accurately recorded, and we are providing training, support and opportunities such as regular health screenings.

However, this has to be a service-wide focus. We know that officer wellbeing is starting to get the attention it deserves and we were proud to be part of the development of the National Police Wellbeing Service which launched last month. We also welcomed the focus on this area in the most recent HMICFRS report.

People are policing’s most important asset and it is time for our people to receive the care they deliver to our communities every day.

In the past inspectors have reported on how policing picks up the pieces of a strained mental health system, but we must be mindful that our own officers do not become part of these ‘pieces’, ultimately becoming victims of their own dedication.

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