Geoff Newiss, Research Associate, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth
After more than 12 months of lockdowns and restrictions the UK is slowly daring to contemplate a post-Covid-19 reality. For everyday citizens this is likely to stir a mixture of emotions from exhilaration through to fear and anxiety, as we look to navigate a path through newfound opportunities together with residual Covid-19 related risks.
The task of navigating the ‘new normal’ is likewise going to present challenges to organisations, not least the police. Perhaps more than any other profession, the police have had to contend with an unenviable list of thorny Covid-related issues:
- How to keep themselves safe while keeping the public safe.
- How to translate hastily issued government decrees into workable everyday policing.
- When to engage, explain, encourage and when to enforce.
- How to balance their new Covid-19 policing role with their vast array of non Covid-19 related responsibilities.
The pandemic has changed both what the police do and how they do it, with potential long-lasting consequences for not only the relationship between the public and the police, but for police officers themselves.
A focus on police mental health and wellbeing began before the Covid-19 pandemic with the launch of Oscar Kilo in 2017 (the home of the National Police Wellbeing Service). Even before Covid-19, police officers reported a higher incidence of mental health problems associated with work than other professions. By the end of 2020 the early signs of an increasing toll on police wellbeing from policing the pandemic were already beginning to emerge.
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have been conducting a programme of research on the impacts of policing the pandemic (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19). As one strand of this work we’ve taken a detailed look at how changes in policing have affected police officers’ wellbeing. 626 police officers in Hampshire Constabulary were surveyed in the summer of 2020, and 39 officers – of different ranks and roles – participated in follow-up interviews during the winter of 2020/21. Below we summarise five key challenges for a post-Covid-19 ‘wellbeing watch-list’.
1. Officer safety
While confronting risk is an unavoidable aspect of policing there can be little doubt that Covid-19 has increased both the range and scale of officer’s safety concerns. Nearly half of officers surveyed reported feeling safe conducting their usual role. However, one in three officers surveyed said they had been abused or threatened by a member of the public. The same proportion felt more anxious when responding to standard emergency calls compared to before the pandemic.
2. Impact on the frontline
The lowest wellbeing scores were recorded for custody staff, neighbourhood police and response and patrol officers. ‘Frontline’ officers reported an increased burden resulting from workload pressure and colleagues being absent through sickness or having to isolate. Unable to work from home, frontline officers bore the brunt of the (sometimes competing) demands to police the restrictions and respond to non-Covid related incidents while keeping themselves and the public safe.
Officers who were able to work from home during the pandemic (roughly half of both the survey respondents and interviewees) reported both pros and cons. Benefits included improved mental health, greater productivity, a better work-life balance, and increased flexibility to manage childcare. However, the experience of homeworking also raises potential downsides to police wellbeing, including perceptions of unfairness, isolation, problems managing workload and separating work from home life.
4. Personal impacts
One quarter of survey respondents experienced negative health impacts as a result of the pandemic, and almost half reported an increase in their anxiety levels. Four of the officers interviewed had contracted Covid-19 with two reporting severe and long-lasting health problems. Many officers expressed concerns about potentially infecting family members with the virus. Others had difficulties providing childcare, particularly with schools in lockdown and childminders or extended family members unable to provide usual levels of support. The survey found that officers with caring responsibilities scored significantly lower on wellbeing compared to those with no caring responsibilities.
5. Negative perceptions of the police
Many frontline officers interviewed told us that their newly acquired role in enforcing the restrictions placed them in a ‘no win’ situation (‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’). There was concern that both mainstream and social media distorted the reality of policing during the pandemic, fostering negative public sentiment, leaving officers demoralised and ‘on the back foot’. The experience appears to have left many officers with serious questions about the legitimacy of their role as police officers and how they are perceived by the public.
As we yet again come out of lockdown, our research suggests that steps to improve police wellbeing are going to be much needed, yet ensuring they are effective is likely to be far from straightforward. Some concerns – such as the additional threats to officers’ safety – might, hopefully, dissipate with the retreat of the virus. Others – such as homeworking, the heavy toll on frontline officers and public perceptions – will require careful consideration.
Hampshire Constabulary and the University of Portsmouth are currently evaluating a significant expansion of the force’s wellbeing strategy which has been implemented in recent years to support officers and staff of the constabulary. The majority of officers interviewed commended Hampshire Constabulary’s welfare support services for staff. Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents knew where to access organisational support. Yet one in seven reported that the experience of policing the pandemic left them more likely to leave the profession. While the era of Covid policing might be coming to an end, the journey to restoring police wellbeing is only just beginning.