Discover why wellbeing among police should command more attention

police car

Wellbeing among police is essential to their performance - but until recently, not given the attention it has deserved. As the strapline of so many US police departments says, their role is to ‘protect and serve’. Health and happiness means being able to provide a better service to communities. When levels of professionalism are visibly seen to drop due to the effects of stress and pressure, that’s when the public recoils, with the potential for damaged reputations and incidents of civil unrest.

The past decade has seen the wellbeing of police professionals increasingly strained and tested: tasked to deal with increased complexity from everchanging forms of cyber-crime as well as issues such as child protection; expected to take on new roles in the wake of cutbacks in social care and health services; and operating in a world where there is need for a constant state of hyper-arousal, alert to the first indications of potential hazards - including the unprecedented level of threat from terrorism.

Constant change and complexity is the new normal for police, and the future maintenance of public service will depend on greater professionalism and resilience across forces - and that will depend on making sure officers have the kind of evidence-based training that’s in line with the demands being placed on them. Only then will the profession provide the necessary balance between challenge and wellbeing that makes the career an attractive one for committed and talented recruits.

How Does It Feel?

A stress evaluation tool was used among 150 US patrol officers and 150 of their equivalent counterparts, police constables, in the UK. This asked officers about their perceptions and feelings towards the job: is there the right training and communications? Do they feel in control of tasks? What’s the state of their relationships at work, of their work/life balance, their sense of job security? Responses were used to determine comparative levels of stress, the sources of workplace stress, and how these might be preventable.

Although the police surveyed are working in different cultures, the levels of responsibility and demands as a result of the environment of change and tightening budget constraints, is very similar.

The Dallas Police Department has been struggling to attract new recruits. A shortfall in the pension fund led to changes to retirement plans: reduced benefits and an increase in the retirement age. City leaders publicly blamed Dallas police retirees for the shortfall, leading to lengthy court battles and record numbers of staff leaving the department. Between June 2016 through October 2017, the agency lost more than 12% of their total sworn personnel. Hiring new recruits into police forces is a problem for most US agencies, and Dallas suffers considerably from shrinking applicant pools. A new scheme has been announced for giving incentives to current personnel to recruit new applicants: "Every Officer Is a Recruiter”.

In the UK, the challenge has been the prolonged austerity measures, redundancies, pay and progression freezes, the impact of which continues to be felt over time. There is now a stark mismatch between the reductions in numbers of police (20,592 fewer police officers and 15,533 fewer staff) and the new responsibilities for dealing with new forms of crime, far more focus on vulnerability and protection, cyber-crime, child sexual exploitation, forced marriages and human trafficking - situations where there are usually multiple victims and offenders and the location of the offences are often unclear. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, the Metropolitan Police Service (by far the largest of the UK’s policing forces) experienced a 43% rise in stressrelated sickness.

Findings from the research were straightforward in highlighting a sizeable gap in attitudes and experience. UK police officers were significantly more engaged, committed and more likely to give extra effort. They also believe their employers are significantly more committed to their staff than their US counterparts. Overall, officers in the US are reporting far greater levels of stress than their UK counterparts. This is across the entire spectrum of questions posed, and apart from unbalanced workloads, they report experiencing significantly more sources of stress.

The causes of the higher levels of stress in the US are counter-intuitive. Rather than the tension caused by far higher risk of involvement in violent crime and shootings, the major causes of stress are said to be more relating to long working hours and a perceived lack of support among line managers. The risks tend to be accepted as part of the job, but what matters for resilience is greater recognition of what police working routines are like, and the opportunity for more of a balance of downtime and flexibility.

Evidence For Change

This project is another example of how important credible research evidence is to addressing ‘hidden’ issues in the workplace, and in this case, the professionalisation of policing. In many work cultures, not just in policing, there can be an overriding emphasis on ‘business as usual’. Delivery against performance targets and meeting short-term goals is the priority. The implications of what this means for employees, their experience of everyday working life and their ability and desire to keep giving more to their role, is overshadowed. Wellbeing becomes a nice-to-have luxury that can only be afforded when the pressure levels are low and there’s time for reflection.

An important difference between the two bodies of police in the research is that the UK constables have been exposed to a number of wellbeing

initiatives. All forces are signed up to the Blue Light Wellbeing Framework, a standard that sets out approaches that can help forces to focus wellbeing activities and procedures. Resilience and trauma training has been trialed in several UK forces, based on the principle that levels of resilience can be built up and maintained, and that personal wellbeing in the workplace can be managed.

Evidence of this kind has provided a solid basis for broader dissemination, more discussion of the issues around stress and wellbeing, and what can be done in terms of training. There is an inherent belief in the UK approach to policing - as the original model for forces in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - with the same financial and governance structures. But getting attention and action on more intangible, Human Resourcesrelated challenges has needed detailed, on-the-ground work.

The results were presented at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Philadelphia in October 2017. This, in turn, has led to a swell of interest, invitations to share thinking at several other policing conferences in the USA and in Canada, and the creation of a network of contacts across US police forces. A further study is planned in collaboration with the Caruth Policing Institute, the partnership between the Dallas Police Department and the University of North Texas, which is the first venture of its kind in the USA in running doctoral research programmes focused on policing strategies and leadership development. 

Back in Lancaster, LUMS has been running its own leadership and management programme for the police for the past six years. This is a bespoke, non-accredited police management course. In terms of its content, there is a particular emphasis on political astuteness, leadership, ethics, integrity and organisational fairness - where awareness of wellbeing and resilience issues among line managers is central. In the long-term there are now plans to adapt and make the programme available to US police forces, further drawing on UK experiences to help build and engage a committed and supported body of police professionals.

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