Better run organisations can improve police officers’ wellbeing

Blog post

Better run organisations can improve police officers’ wellbeing

“I was feeling like I was banging my head against the wall, and swimming in mud.”  This is just one quote (from PC David Stubbs) taken from the Police Federation’s latest Demand, Capacity and Welfare Survey.  The survey found that 79% of officers said they had experienced feelings of stress, low mood, anxiety, or other difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing within the previous 12 months.  94% of these officers said this had been made worse by work.

The fact that so many of those charged with keeping us safe can themselves can come to harm in the course of their work is something which should concern us all.  This is not only bad in and of itself, but it can also impact on how effective police officers can be at serving the public.  A police officer who is stressed, tired and even traumatised is not going to be in a position to make the best decisions on duty.

Clearly there are elements of police work that are intrinsically high risk and indeed always have been.  But there are indicators that the emotional and mental wellbeing of police officers has been getting worse in recent years. For example, there was a 35 per cent increase in police sick-leave for psychological reasons between 2010 and 2015.  The proportion of officers reporting a case of work related stress has increased in the last three years.

Why is this and what can be done about it?  Austerity has unquestionably taken its toll on the psychological wellbeing of those working in policing.  Since 2010 there has been a 15% reduction in the number of police officers, a 21% reduction in the number of police staff and a 40% reduction in the number of police community support officers.  The impact of this in terms of increased workload and other drivers of stress is clear in the Federation survey.  This shows increases in the proportion of officers compared to 2016 reporting that their workload was too high, that they don’t have enough officers to met the demands faced and that they are often or always single crewed. 

There may also be a link to the changing nature of police work. There has been a shift in police demand away from the high volume low level crimes of the 1980s and 1990s towards more emotionally intense and victim-focused work dealing with issues such as child sexual exploitation and domestic abuse.  15% of officers say that they have sought help with mental health problems related to exposure to a traumatic incident in the last year.

However, this is not just about factors that are external to policing.  Police officers identify the way in which change is managed in their organisation as one of the main reasons for a deterioration in personal and organisational morale.  The Police Federation found that just 6% of officers agree that ‘change is well managed in my force’, compared to 20% of members of the armed forces who say the same.

This week we at the Police Foundation published a report exploring in more detail the link between the way police organisations are led and managed and workforce wellbeing.  There is a wealth of evidence showing that ‘employee engagement’ (for example through good communication, continuous feedback and high levels of autonomy at work) are linked with improved performance and psychological wellbeing.  These findings pose a particular challenge for policing because it has cleaved to a very hierarchical model of leadership.  The traditional rank structure in policing, which its multiple layers arguably inhibiting effective feedback and communication between ‘the leaders’ and ‘the led’, was combined from the 1990s onwards with top down private sector management techniques (targets, key performance indicators etc). Added to this are high levels of external scrutiny, in particular by the inspectorate, which tends to demand quick solutions to very specific problems and mitigates against the kind of inclusive processes of change management that, while no doubt taking longer, as the evidence shows, produce higher performance and improved wellbeing over the long term.

Our report calls on the police service to tear down the unnecessary hierarchies that get in the way of a high performance high engagement culture. As Chief Constable Andy Rhodes pointed out at our launch event, in the highest risk areas such as fire arms operations police officers are routinely trusted to make autonomous decisions, simply because they are the only ones who can see the risk and respond quickly enough to it. There is no good reason why the same thinking shouldn’t apply to other areas where officers themselves are closer to the facts on the ground than those in senior management positions. Our report sets out a number of practical ways in which a more inclusive management culture can be promoted in policing and argues that these should be promoted by the College of Policing. It also calls for the review of rank structures that was carried out following the 2015 Leadership Review to be revisited and acted upon so that forces are encouraged to experiment with flatter management structures.

Let’s end with a little hope. Although there has been a deterioration in police officer wellbeing in recent years it is also true that police officers do feel more confident coming forward about mental health problems than in the past and many more agree that the service encourages its staff to talk about mental health and wellbeing. This is no doubt due to the excellent work undertaken as part of the Oscar Kilo initiative and the development of the Bluelight Wellbeing Framework.  The new national welfare service should strengthen these efforts. It is also true that while many of the challenges facing policing are beyond the service’s control, the way in which forces are organised and managed is within the power of policing to change. We would encourage police leaders in particular to grasp that opportunity.

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