There seems to be lots of talk in policing at the moment about something called ‘wellbeing’.
I’m no expert, but these are my ten thoughts on the subject.
(1) It’s People, Stupid
- The fact that more of us are talking about the physical, emotional and psychological health of police officers and staff is a good thing. A very good thing.
- But it must never become just another management soundbite – another thing to measure and another box to tick
- This is about people – and it simply doesn’t get any more important than that.
(2) We need to understand policing better – operationally
- Put quite simply, this is one heck of a job.
- The things that become normal in this line of work would be entirely extraordinary in almost every other walk of life.
- Do we recognise and understand the inevitable wear and tear officers and staff experience over the course of a policing lifetime – and the consequences this can have for their physical and mental health?
- In particular, do we recognise and understand the cumulative consequences for them of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma?
- In truth, there is no other job that offers so many (and such frequent) invitations into the darkness.
- As a service (and as a society) we need to understand, to a far greater degree, the impact on our people of the things we ask and expect them to do.
(3) We need to understand policing better – culturally
- Police officers and staff are endlessly imperfect. But they are extraordinary too.
- They want to help – to make a difference. It’s the reason every good one of them joined.
- They rarely say ‘no’. In response to any cry for help, they simply take a deep breath and go again.
- Policing is sustained by that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty – and by the discretionary effort of its people.
- This culture is so much of what makes policing remarkable – but it can come at a cost to the health of individual officers and staff.
- None of us is invincible – we all have our breaking points.
- But people can be reluctant to put up a hand and ask for help – fearing that it will be seen as a sign of weakness, or that it will have career-limiting consequences.
(4) We need to understand the impact of the current context for policing
- This is the most challenging time for policing in Britain since the end of the Second World War:
- Operationally: rising crime; rising demand; rising threat; rising vulnerability; rising complexity; diminishing resources.
- Economically: the compound consequences of austerity (internally & externally, corporately and personally).
- Politically: the persistence of a narrative about policing that has, at times, been extraordinarily hostile.
- Media: a general imbalance in the coverage given to policing – with a recurring focus on the negative.
- External scrutiny: both from those in positions of authority and those in possession of social media accounts and one-eyed opinions.
- Reform: in the view of many, too much, too quickly and not always for the better.
- Have we properly recognised and understood the impact on our people of the combination of these things?
(5) We need to understand Mental Health better
- There is a continual need to challenge the stigma associated with mental ill health – and to continue doing so until it’s no longer even a thing.
- We need to encourage and allow for open, honest & compassionate conversations.
- How many officers and staff are working with undiagnosed (or unacknowledged) MH conditions?
- We need to recognise that, actually, we don’t fully understand MH (“Depression is 90% mystery” – Matt Haig). And that’s ok.
(6) We need to understand Trauma better
- Trauma is an inevitable consequence of the things police officers and staff see and do.
- Primary: a consequence of the things we see and do ourselves.
- Secondary: a consequence of the things seen and done by our colleagues (akin to passive smoking).
- Ambient: a consequence of the things we observe in – and absorb from – the world around us (for example, via the news).
- Trauma can be experienced both as a consequence of a single event and as the result of an accumulation of experiences over the course of time.
- None of us is designed to absorb that trauma indefinitely. The natural, normal, healthy, human thing is to feel.
- The Military allow for periods of ‘decompression’ following operational deployments. There is no routine equivalent in policing.
(7) We need to understand Stress better
- Currently in policing, there are more good people operating under significantly more strain than at any point in living memory.
- That pace and intensity is not sustainable – individually or collectively.
- And I can’t help wondering whether we are actually busy with the right things – whether we are spending ourselves on the things that truly matter?
- In relation to any new decision to be made in policing, there are 3 critical questions that need to be asked: (a) will it (the result of the decision) make the community safer? (b) will it improve the quality of service we offer to the public? (c) will it make it easier for frontline officers and staff to do their jobs? If we are unable to answer ‘yes’ to at least one of those questions, we need to stop and move on to something that actually matters.
(8) The need to learn from our experience of crisis
- Though we still have a long way to go, we are getting better at the provision of care following high profile critical incidents.
- What though of the routine care we offer – the day-to-day support we provide for our people?
- Beyond that, we also need a prevention plan – one that recognises the inevitable impact policing has on people and provides them with the resources they need to deal with it before it ever becomes overwhelming.
- We all have our stories and we all have our scars.
(9) Bad Management vs Good Leadership
- There is a difference between bad management and good leadership. All the difference in the world in fact.
- The people in charge can help or they can hinder. They can lift a burden or add to it. They can make life easier, or they can make a difficult job even harder to do.
- What are the real values of those in charge?
- How do they behave?
- What are the priorities they pursue?
- What do they actually spend their time doing?
- Everything can’t be a priority – so leaders in policing need to be absolutely clear (and consistent) about the things that matter more. And they need to address the ‘conspiracy of the unimportant’ – the time spent dealing with stuff that really isn’t important.
(10) Unintended Consequences
- What are the unintended people consequences of a combination of the changes and cuts that have built up in recent years?
- Reduced officer & staff numbers
- Single Crewing
- Remote/Self Briefing
- The closure of police Canteens
- The lack of affordable housing in some parts of the country (meaning that people live further away from the station and are less likely to socialise after work).
- Is it possible (likely even) that we have, unintentionally, dismantled many of the informal networks and wellbeing support structures that enabled our people to cope better with the endless and unique demands of the job?
Now. more than ever before, we need to look after the extraordinary men and women who stand on the thin blue line.